I felt guilty the other day. Now, that’s not too strange of a thing in America (and thank you, Increase Mathers and the rest of the Puritans, for that). I felt guilty sitting at a sports bar in Bloomington with some of my roommates, drinking eight glasses of water, eating my meatless nachos, and watching the Michigan-Ohio State game. I felt guilty because I had just finished reading this book the night before. And it felt odd, condemningly so, to be sitting in a warm room, eating and drinking, enjoying life and watching sports on a big-screen television. It felt odd because this book is centered around the life of a 10 year-old boy who becomes a child soldier in Western Africa. It felt odd because I knew that there were people dying in the dirt, leaving not even a name behind, as I sat on my stool.

Beasts of No Nation is the first book by Uzodinma Iweala, a 23 year-old Nigerian born in America and raised in Washington, DC, England, and Nigeria. Iweala is a sub-Saharan Upton Sinclair, whose Jungle is not about dead rats and poison in your meat, but about dead families and poisoned dreams in your world. The beauty of this piece is that it takes a story we would glance past as it scrolled along the bottom of CNN news or change the channel when it broke in a short bulletin on the BBC and brings it up close and personal. Far too personal to be safe.

The main character in this book is Agu, young at only 10, living in a quiet village in an unnamed West African nation. But war visits his nation and splinters apart his world. Most women and children are sent away before the rebels attack the town, but Agu elects to stay with his father. The rebels kill his father in front of his eyes and then take Agu captive. Slowly, due to the paternal hole in his life, Agu gives in and becomes a part of the rag-tag band of traveling rebels, those who have no ideological basis to kill, but rather a frothing sort of internal obsession with upsetting normal lives.

We watch as Agu kills his first and then many more, as his life and his rebel group fall apart. The story is narrated from the mind of Agu himself, consisting of broken English, speaking everything in the present tense, a child’s view on life. We witness the continual dissociation of Agu’s young life as he comes into contact with more and more that no living thing, let along a child, should ever experience. Few writers have been able to put you into the mind of the narrator so well. We read as a raped, raping, killing, lonely, destroyed, West African Holden Caulfield tries to make sense of his life. As the simple speech of Agu draws us in, we feel the hot sun on our black backs, grasp more tightly to keep the bloody machete from slipping out of our hands, hear the cries of women and children as we herd them towards a gory slaughter in the corner of a stuffy thatched roof hut.

This book is both one of the greatest literary masterpieces I have ever read, on par with Bellow, Hemingway, and Vonnegut, and also one of the most graphic and hardest to read I’ve ever seen. Scenes of murder and exploitation are not described gorily, dripping with blood to bring readers buzzing about the carrion like so many flies. Because the focus remains on the mind of Agu, we see the devil through sparse details. It is the fact that it is a child describing these things, and with such heart-breaking accuracy, that should break our hearts.

The story does finally end, not “finally” because of the time it takes to get to it, but “finally” because of the pain in your soul by the time you reach it. The ending is somewhat happy for those who can’t handle the fact that life as a whole doesn’t end and is rarely happy. If you need an excuse to go back to your life of $5 iced coffee drinks and other materialistic pursuits, the book ending will give you that excuse. But only those who have the most calloused and selfish hearts, the most immature and least idealistic, those who identify least with Christ and most with what he gives us, will be able to walk away the same.

So don’t read this book if you aren’t prepared. Prepared for death, prepared for dirt and tsetse flies, prepared for brass casings and the steely taste you get in your mouth on a hot day when you’re even around metal. Don’t read this if you aren’t prepared for life, the type of life that the other 99% is at least aware of.

But if you are ready for a life outside of your BarcaLounger and Birkenstocks, read this book. But consider yourself warned.

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