Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ugly Betty meets Serpico in a parody of a mockery of justice (Books - From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry)

On the last day of American military presence in Iraq, it's appropriate that I should have just finished From the Memoirs of a non-Enemy Combatant an incisive satire, part-political part-social, and the first novel of Alex Gilvarry. Viking sent me a copy in advance of its January release, thanks Viking.

The first level of this novel I was struck by was the narrative voice Gilvarry lends his lead character Boy Hernandez - it is queeny, misquoting Dostoyevsky one minute and Coco Chanel the next. One could say it is over dramatic, were it not for the overly dramatic circumstances Boy finds himself in. This is a voice ready-made for a one man show in a downtown club.

I would not, could not, nor did I ever raise a hand in anger against America. I love America, the golden bastard. It's where I was born again: propelled through the duct of JFK International, out the rotating doors, push, push, dripping a post-U.S. Customs sweat down my back, and slithering out on my feet to a curb in Queens, breathe. Then into a yellow cab, thrown to the masses. Van Wyck, BQE, Brooklyn Bridge, Soho, West Side Highway, Riverside Drive - these are a few of my favorite things!

My story is one of unrequited love. Love for a country so great that it has me welling up inside knowing it could never love me back. And even after the torment they've put me through - tossing me into this little cell in No Man's Land - would you believe that I still hold American close to my heart? Stupid me, Boy Hernandez. Filipino by birth, fashion designer by trade, and terrorist by association.
I hear an over-earnest Diana Ross sound track playing under that opening voice-over. The other delight of this book is its unlikely hybrid of influences - think Ugly Betty meets...I don't know... Serpico. One the one hand, it is utter camp - it creates a pitch-perfect swish of the superficial, over-the-top fashion world and Boy's desperate ambition to get inside the holy tent in Bryant Park during Fashion Week, leading him to accept the funding of Ahmed Quereshi and the PR support of a man with the unfortunate name of Ben Laden (no really). This eventually links him to a terrorist plot and lands him in Guantanamo Bay prison. On the other hand, From the Memoirs... is an outraged critique of the American government detaining people without charging them or providing them access to legal representation because of fears, legitimate or not, that they are dangerous terrorists. What is clever, as opposed to merely entertaining about Gilvarry's paradoxical cross-breed is the way it skewers the extremity of America's dubious legal practices, sends up the superficiality of the bases of our fears, and points to the absurdity of the way life will go on in any and all circumstances. Though we were supposedly dangerously under siege, this did not curtail lavish spending on runway fashion shows, the publishing of Vogue, or the reopening of Century 21, and don't give me the "that would mean the terrorists were winning" crap, if you want to see countries crippled by terrorism or war there is a long list to choose from.

From the Memoirs of a non-Enemy Combatant has its moments of dumb silliness and the end gets a little long and explanatory, but the prose is swift moving and smart and Gilvarry never breaks character. Its best moments offer some really good laughs and the incongruity of its worlds, the thing that sticks with one after reading it, can produce nuanced political satire. For instance, Boy offers an appreciation of his prison bathing partner, Riad, the man assigned to him as they went in twos for their weekly shower. Here is an educated Islamic man from Birmingham who creates a charity to give away both Islamic and Western literature in poverty stricken Pakistani towns. It is somewhat in question, whether these activities may have crossed over the Afghan border. However, one mullah saw him as a threat to his sovereign rule and so informed on him, eventually landing him in the same prison as Boy. Is Riad virtuous or is Boy gullible? Whether one is a paragon of self-motivated superficiality or intellectuality and self-less philanthropy, says Gilvarry's lampoon, one can be equally suspect in the hunt for enemy combatants and equally unlucky at the hands of America's freely elected and democratic government.

Gilvarry is also an editor at the Tottenville Review a smart on-line book review that I enjoyed checking out.

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