Excerpt from The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

A Novel

by Dinaw Mengestu

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 240 pages
    Feb 2008, 240 pages

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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

Joseph’s already drunk when he comes into the store. He strolls through the open door with his arms open. You get the sense when watching him that even the grandest gestures he may make aren’t grand enough for him. He’s constantly trying to outdo himself, to reach new levels of Josephness that will ensure that anyone who has ever met him will carry some lingering trace of Joseph Kahangi long after he has left. He’s now a waiter at an expensive downtown restaurant, and after he cleans each table he downs whatever alcohol is still left in the glasses before bringing them back to the kitchen. I can tell by his slight swagger that the early dinnertime crowd was better than usual today.

Joseph is short and stout like a tree stump. He has a large round face that looks like a moon pie. Kenneth used to tell him he looked Ghanaian.

“You have a typical Ghanaian face, Joe. Round eyes. Round face. Round nose. You’re Ghanaian through and through. Admit it, and let us move on.”

Joseph would stand up then and theatrically slam his fist onto the table, or into his palm, or against the wall. “I am from Zaire,” he would yell out. “And you are a ass.” Or, more recently, and in a much more subdued tone: “I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Next week, it may be something different. I admit that. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be from the Liberated Land of Laurent Kabila. But today, as far as I know, I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

Joseph kisses me once on each cheek after he takes his coat off.

“That’s my favorite thing about you Ethiopians,” he says. “You kiss each other on the cheeks all the time. It takes you hours to say hello and good-bye because you’re constantly kissing each other. Kiss. Kiss. Kiss.”

Kenneth pours Joseph a scotch and the three of us raise our cups for a toast.

“How is America today, Stephanos?” Joseph asks me.

“He hates it,” Kenneth says.

“That’s because he doesn’t understand it.” Joseph leans closer toward me, his large moon-pie face eclipsing my view of every thing except his eyes, which are small and bloodshot, and look as if they were added onto his face as an afterthought.

“I’ve told you,” he says. “This country is like a little bastard child. You can’t be angry when it doesn’t give you what you want.”

He leans back deliberately in his chair and crosses his legs, holding the pose for two seconds before leaning over and resting both arms on his thighs.

“But you have to praise it when it comes close, otherwise it’ll turn around and bite you in the ass.”

The two of them laugh and then quickly pour back their drinks and refill their glasses. There is a brief silence as each struggles to catch his breath. Before either of them can tell me something else about America (“This country cares only about one thing...” “There are three things you need to know about Americans...”), I call out, “Bukassa.” The name catches them off guard. They both turn and stare at me. They swirl their cups around and around to make sure it looks like they’re thinking. Kenneth walks over to the map of Africa I keep taped on the wall right next to the door. It’s at least twenty years old, maybe older. The borders and names have changed since it was made, but maps, like pictures and journals, have a built-in nostalgic quality that can never render them completely obsolete. The countries are all color-coded, and Africa’s hanging dour head looks like a woman’s head wrapped in a shawl. Kenneth rubs his hand silently over the continent, working his way west to east and then south until his index finger tickles the tip of South Africa. When he’s finished tracing his hand over the map, he turns around and points at me.

Excerpted from The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu © 2007 by Dinaw Mengestu. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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