Uwem Akpan: “Baptizing the Gun”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Uwem Akpan’s “Baptizing the Gun” was originally published in the January 4, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

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One thing that stood out to me before I read the story: Uwem Akpan is a priest at Christ the King Catholic Church in Lagos, Nigeria. I’ve never heard of him before.

His story is good — and it involves a Catholic priest in Lagos. It starts out with a matter-of-fact violent scene when a thief is captured, doused in petrol, and then lit on fire. All present cheer — justice! It reminded me of a similar event I witnessed in northern Brazil. There a thief had stolen a purse and a car gunned it until it ran him down, right in front of me. Miraculously the thief managed to get on his feet again, and it looked like his feet weren’t even touching the ground as he ran away. It’s a kind of brutality I am glad I don’t witness where I live now, but as shocking as it was for me in Brazil, it was rather matter-of-fact. In this story, the priest really just wants to get back to his home in a safer area.

A problem comes when the priest’s car stalled and won’t start back up. A man with a gun-shaped bulge in his pocket comes to help and then jumps in the car for the ride. The priest naturally fears for his life. This is Nigeria in 1999, a bit before their first elections in decades, but democracy as I know it is not in practice. The drive becomes a horrific series of police and militant checkpoints, everyone seeking a bribe and then coverage for the bribe. Where the priest once feared his life, eventually he just wants it all to end.

This is a well paced story. Never did I feel the desire to put it down, though it was a bit longer than many New Yorker stories. The intensity built nicely and believably, and the priest’s emotional fluctuations were well supported. All in all, a great way to start the 2010.

Feel free to share your thoughts below. In discussing such a short piece, I don’t think anyone should feel bad about putting in spoilers.

13 thoughts on “Uwem Akpan: “Baptizing the Gun””

  1. Colette Jones says:

    Hi Trevor,

    I’ve been waiting for someone else to comment, but decided to deliver my two cents.

    I do not seem to be one for short stories, and this one is no different in that respect. There seems to be an excellent buildup and a quick, abrupt ending to every one I have read.

    Maybe it is just that it cannot be any different given the constraint of quantity of words, but I’d like to think there are exceptions.

    Actually, one comes to mind, not much difference in length to this, Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl. Is it one of a kind?

  2. I’m glad you came to comment, Colette. Hopefully everyone else has just been waiting like you were! I’m sure this little project will be hit-and-miss, especially in its initial outing, but thanks for starting up the discussion about this piece.

    Also, thanks for asking some interesting questions about short stories in general. I’ll do my best to add to it, and I hope others will come and give their opinions and experience.

    Well, you’ve picked a difficult short story to serve as a comparison piece. I think Ozick’s “The Shawl” is a superlative short story, and in many ways it does stand alone. Rarely have I read anything as impactful in such few words — or in many words, to be truthful.

    However, I do think short stories vary greatly, and while there are some limitations to their form, there are also some advantages. This story, for instance, to me was very impactful because of the abrupt ending. After all, all of the priest’s build-up was quickly cut off when he realized it was for nothing, that his mistrust (while understandable) wasn’t called for. So we experience that sudden epiphany with the priest, and it does end quickly because that’s as far as we need the story to take us. The rest of it — ruminating on the fact that this type of mistrust is one of the major problems in these types of communities but also that this type of mistrust is entirely understandable — is up to us. The author hopes that we have come to a realization along with the protagonist.

    I wouldn’t say that this is a necessary formula for short stories, though. I think James Joyce pioneered this type of story (lenghty build-up, quick resolution or “epiphany”) with Dubliners, and many have seen that it is indeed a great way to subvert readers’ expectations. Build up, get the reader to go down one pathway, and then cut it down in a quick paragraph showing how wrong we were to be going down that pathway with the story’s protagonist. While Joyce’s “epiphanies” were primarily about stasis and paralysis, others have used this type of form to explore other themes. One of my favorites of this type, besides Joyces masterpieces, is Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter.” It’s a beautiful build-up, as well constructed as most novels, and the realization at the end left me silent and withdrawn for the next few days after my first reading (which was not a bad thing at all).

    But I think there are many other types of short stories, ones that develop a clearer narrative arch more like a novel. I’m thinking of one of my favorites from last year’s The New Yorker, “A Tiny Feast,” a story about Titania and Oberon’s attempt to parent a mortal child with leukemia.

    Other short stories use the exploit the form to render a deeply impressionistic piece that would be unbearable in a longer form. For example, the short form gives the author the chance to experiment with voice and tone in a way that would be too grueling drawn out in a longer work. My example here is George Saunders’ “The Victory Lap,” also published last year in The New Yorker. To read this type of writing for much longer would be exhausting and ultimately more burdensome than beneficial; but to read it for a few pages is invigorating and effective. Even from the quintessential maximalist, David Foster Wallace’s “Wiggle Room” would get old after too many pages, but the short form is perfect to capture an intense moment of this man’s suicidal frustration at his job. While much of this type of writing can make up a part of a longer work, in short form it comes undiluted.

    So short stories are often ways to give quick bursts of feeling, whether in a single paragraph at the end of a long build up or in one lengthy anti-climactic rant. I love the best of them as much as I love the best of novels, though they are entirely different experiences to read.

    Sorry if this sounded pedantic. I do hope you’ll respond to this quick summation, and that others will feel free to expand or refute what I’ve said above.

    At any rate, Colette, I hope that though you didn’t particularly enjoy this piece (and while I liked it, especially when I saw what the author was trying to get us to consider, it was not one of my favorites), you’ll continue with us for a while to see if something hits the sweet spot!

  3. Colette Jones says:

    That is not pedantic at all, Trevor. Thanks for taking my point seriously, and finding examples to refute my bias.

    I will certainly carry on with this project, and look forward to further installments.

  4. There are very few short stories that I do not read to the end. This proved to be one of them — I look forward to next week’s offering.

  5. So interesting how responses vary. I read through it quite quickly, despite its length. I didn’t love it, by any means, but to me it was far from one of the half-dozen stinkers published in these pages each year. I wonder how much of my response was determined from those first few paragraphs when the thief is mercilessly punished — that hit home not because I’ve been that thief and not because I’ve been one of the crowd looking for emotional release in the form of punishment but only because I saw similar things in Brazil. Perhaps for me that initial conection — as small as it was, and probably blown out of proportion by my own emotional response that had nothing to do with the story — that overshadowed the faults that became insurpassable to you, Kevin.

    I’ll be interested to see how we all feel about “Safari.” I’m almost finished with it, but it’s not doing much for me right now.

  6. Colette Jones says:

    The scene with the thief was a very good part of the story, and had he explored that mentality rather than just use it to set the scene of a dangerous place, I might have liked this more.

    I was annoyed at the implausibility of it. Why would this priest, who knows how dangerous the place is he is going into, risk it by going by himself in an unreliable vehicle? There was mention that he could have gone more safely if he waited for the weekend. In the end, he probably lost all of the money he collected, and again, that is something he would have foreseen.

    The “bad guy” being a baddie didn’t ring true either – if all he wanted was the car, why would he seek out the priest, even pay people to find him? I’m afraid the priest’s thought processes (and therefore the author’s) did not make sense.

  7. Great points, Colette. Though I think again taht I formulated a personal connection to the story which induced me to overlook several faults. Here I related somewhat to the priest’s relationship to the “bad guy,” who turned out to not be bad at all but to be acting in genuine good faith. (Did I miss something? I’m not sure I follow you on your last statement above because the “bad guy” wasn’t bad and didn’t want or take the car — at least, that’s what I thought.)

    Here’s my personal connection to the complex relationships I felt this story played with, even if not very effectively. I live right next to Newark, New Jersey. Now, Newark is not as bad as this region in Nigeria, thankfully. But over the past forty years it has been pretty awful and is only marginally better now. I have a lot of contact with good people who live in Newark and Irvington (another impoverished place overran by drugs and gangs), so I know that great people live in these areas. However, most people who live around Newark and Irvington don’t venture in — there is some deep mistrust. The man’s statement at the end — “You know, we need to start trusting each other” — hit the mark for me. Newark’s desire to become better is hindered, in part, by a severe amount of understandable but also ridiculous mistrust. Each year there are arguments about why the kids from Newark, if they want to compete in sporting events, must always travel to the suburban schools. Why can’t the suburban schools travel to Newark? Well, for some very good reasons. And I frankly have no desire to send my children to Newark. But those reasons aren’t helping to solve any problems. The division doesn’t go away. People who live in Newark understandably feel some shame and resentment at being treated this way. And a society that evolves under those kinds of feelings doesn’t evolve well.

    I’m a part of this too, though I do go to Newark, always uncomfortably. I’ve been there several times in the evening, and I have to admit I don’t feel like trusting anyone who’s out on the street. It’s both understandable and ridiculous to feel that way. Bad things happen frequently enough that one assumes they happen all the time everywhere. The man who is offering to help you is obviously doing it only to rob and then kill you. One can see why such assumptions do little to strengthen relationships between towns and regions.

    But it’s easy to say we should trust one another. Putting that into practice is incredibly difficult. After all, there are real reasons for the mistrust. Bad things do happen. Your chances of getting robbed in Newark are significantly higher than if you were in my hometown. We hear about bad things happening all the time. There is a need to go in, to soften the border, to have better relationships with the majority of the population who is living there and wants to do so in peace. But how to do this? This story doesn’t answer that question. I don’t know if anyone can really answer that question.

    Now, I realize that I’m not talking about the exact same thing this story is talking about. But I do think that the general subject of this story applies.

    Of course, just because a story contains this pathway of thought for me doesn’t make it a well executed story. I still don’t think it was great. But I did think it was interesting, and it did cause me to think.

  8. Trevor: Your comment motivated me to go back and read the story to the end. I appreciate your point and think it is well made — I still don’t think it is a very good story.

  9. After I wrote that above, Kevin, I stopped to think a bit about whether it was a well written, objectively good story or whether I liked it purely because of my own response. I’ve gone back to look at the story, and while I don’t think it is terribly written, it certainly is not up to the standard we should hope for from The New Yorker. Then again, perhaps it is what we can expect from them — throughout the year they publish a handful of great pieces and a handful of terrible pieces. The rest are mediocre and forgettable. Despite my response to this piece, it is forgettable. I’m anxious to see where you land in the next story. You’ll see that Colette and I are divided again :).

  10. Colette Jones says:

    By “bad guy”, I meant to be referring to what the priest was thinking of the man who turned out not to be bad. When the man wouldn’t leave with the car and instead found the priest, why did the priest still think he wanted to steal the car?

    I hope that makes a bit more sense.

    I understand about the Newark issue – I didn’t actually realise the situation was that bad. You know what needs to happen, but HOW? Who is going to start going into the city and wandering around with their children?

  11. Ahh! I see what you mean now, Colette. And it’s a point I completely overlooked when I read it. Why would he still think that?

  12. akumbu says:

    Hi, the author’s surname is Akpan not Ukpan. He’s a Jesuit priest as well. Check out his collection of stories, ‘Say You’re One of Them’

  13. Ah, thanks akumbu! After over three years, the title of this post is — I hope — correct :-).

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