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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Post-9/11 Anxiety in a 'Non-Enemy Combatant'

Novelist Alex Gilvarry fashions a winning satire

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From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant (Viking Adult) is Alex Gilvarry's fictional indictment of Homeland Security's post-9/11 paranoia. The book's hero, Boyet ("Boy") Hernandez, is a rising star in the gossamer world of haute couture. Gilvarry has given Boy a voice that is friendly, gossipy and thoughtful, if sometimes confused—he gets Friedrich Nietzsche mixed up with Coco Chanel. He is drolly superficial at the start of his personal story and a powerful voice for the innocent at the end.

I don't normally like books that wear their themes on their sleeves; however, Memoirs makes its point with a story that is engaging, funny and tragic. The diminutive Boy is a likable hero who only wants to be a part of the American dream. His love of America survives his ruination at American hands. "My story," he says, "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."

Gilvarry makes good use of annotations and an afterword by fictional fashion writer Gil Johannessen. We learn that Boy sees the world through the lenses of Diane von Furstenberg and Oscar de la Renta. He's never read Proust, but he doesn't mind mixing him up with Flaubert, who he's never read either.

Boy can be willfully ignorant when it suits him. His murky landlord, Ahmed Qureshi, stores weapons-grade fertilizer next to his panini maker. Boy too readily accepts what is too good to be true. He dismisses his own apprehensions about Qureshi and, in exchange for financial backing, allows himself to be duped. He is just about to launch his first full couture collection when a knock on his door in the middle of the night leads to an "overwhelming event." He is dragged in shackles to a series of hellholes, culminating in being locked away in a 6-by-8-foot cell in No Man's Land.

Memoirs
continues to provoke smiles at the beginning of Boy's sojourn. He is an ex-Catholic, but his captors make a presumptuous point of providing him with a Qur'an. He customizes his orange jumpsuit, which he had found impractical and unlovely. He is able to gain a certain rapport with his Marine guard by titillating him with stories of his old pal, the model on the cover of Vogue magazine. For his good behavior, his interrogators provide him with a pen and paper to write his confession.

The narrative switches back and forth between prison and Boy's past. This is an especially effective device when Boy's life in Gitmo takes a big turn for the worse. The acclaim, the soirees, the runways—he had been so close to having it all, and having it would have kept him happy for the rest of his life. But his Kafkaesque circumstances tamp out the light of even that remembered glory.

Boy is the victim of "a weird science of cruel and unusual punishment." He doesn't know the charges against him. He is denied counsel. He has no prospect of release. He is tortured psychologically and physically. The various tortures inflicted upon him are described and implied. As the story grows darker, author Gilvarry deftly switches his tone from wry to ruefully observant. Boy notes of his egregious lack of due process, "In certain countries, this would be illegal." When Boy's plight is finally uncovered, it goes viral and he is sent home. But the insidious damage to his psyche has been done.

Gilvarry has made an impressive debut. From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant is ambitious, funny, smart, sneaky and daring.