Alex Gilvarry's debut novel From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant is the kind of book that creeps up on you. It starts off as kind of a light and kind of silly, but little by little transforms into something dark and uncomfortable. Gilvarry tells the story of Boy Hernandez, a Filipino fashion designer trying to make a go of it in New York but when the book opens, Boy is incarcerated on Guantanemo Bay, being held for unspecified charges for an indefinite period of time. Hernandez narrates the story and it becomes clear that his life has split in two- the time before prison, when he was struggling to make a name for himself as a designer, and in the process, hooked himself to a very shady character indeed, and the "now" time, in prison, and after.
Boy comes to New York with a head full of dreams and dresses. He's enamored with the city, with fashion, with the women in his life, with his prospects, but he needs money to make his dreams come true. His bombastic neighbor Ahmed Qureshi offers no-questions backing- sets him up and pays for his supplies and shows. With Ahmed's help, Boy starts to make a dent in the fashion world. Oh sure, he knows Ahmed isn't what he claims to be, knows somewhere in the corner of his mind that his backer has some under-the-table business going on, but he doesn't care- he's living the dream.
Meanwhile, in prison, he's slowly losing his identity and connections to the outside world. When he arrives, he's watched by a Marine officer who takes exactly zero interest in Boy, but Boy wants this guy to know who he is, to know that he's someone who matters:
Just the other night, while I was lying on my bed watching Cunningham [the Marine] read a Maxim, I caught a glimpse of my past on the cover. It was Olya. My darling Olya, who once shared a bed with me so openly and would remain a dear friend over the years..."You know, I know her," I said to him.Little by little though the Kafkaesque ordeal of not knowing what the charges are, having no one to trust, no lawyer and no prospects of release wears him down until the man he was is destroyed. In the mean time, we watch his career take off until the moment of his life-changing collision with post-9/11 law enforcement, his confinement and the rest of the story.
"Who?" he said.
"Her, Olya. The girl on the cover."
"You don't know her," he said, as if it was totally impossible for a man like me to have known a girl like Olya.
"Of course I do. I'm a designer of women's wear in New York. Olya is a friend. She's even worked for me on several occasions."
"We're friends," I said.
This makes him laugh.
From the Memoirs is both a brilliant, scathing satire and a very enjoyable read. It's a political novel that takes a side and stands by it without being heavy-handed or didactic. I don't know how Gilvarry managed to pull that off, but he did. Normally I dislike issue-oriented fiction, even when I agree with the position the author takes, because I don't like being preached to. But Gilvarry doesn't preach; he just shows, by telling one man's story, how a naive man goes wrong in a dangerous world. Gilvarry gives the reader a lot to think about regardless of political persuasion; I hope lots of readers pick up this sneaky, funny, smart book.
Click here for my interview with Alex Gilvarry.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin.