By Whitney Pastorek
Updated January 26, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

Chris Abani’s novel The Virgin of Flames isn’t an easy read. Black, a muralist in East L.A., struggles with his sexuality, his race, his poverty, and his art. His friends include a Rwandan refugee-turned-butcher, a psychic tattoo artist, and a drugged-out dwarf; he’s obsessed with a transsexual stripper, regularly visited by the angel Gabriel, and likely going crazy. Through symbolism both Catholic and apocalyptic, Abani lets his vast descriptive powers run wild. But Virgin struggles under its own weight, so chock-full of imagery that processing it all is like trying to canoe the Los Angeles River: Sometimes you have to get out and push. B+