's debut novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant
, is presented as the personal statement of Boyet R. Hernandez, "Filipino by birth, fashion designer by trade, and terrorist by association." When we first meet Boy, it's 2006, and he's just arrived at Guantánamo, where he's being detained by the U.S. government for reasons that remain somewhat unclear, although the tabloids have already dubbed him the "fashion terrorist." Encouraged by his captors to write out his personal narrative, Boy takes us from his arrival in New York City four years earlier through his attempt to launch a new womenswear label with the rather insistent financial backing of his downstairs neighbor, Ahmed, who seems to have a hand in all sorts of vaguely defined import-export deals.
Most of this story plays out as farce: Though Boy intuitively gets that Ahmed isn't particularly trustworthy, he's completely oblivious to what's going on, more concerned with trying to create an original look and score himself a Fashion Week exhibition. For a while, he's also dealing with a snotty girlfriend, an aspiring playwright named Michelle who looks down on his fellow designer friends as phonies. (From his prison cell, Boy will learn that Michelle has made her Broadway debut with a fictionalized version of their relationship called The Enemy at Home
.) Gilvarry walks a careful line here; though it's obvious Boy isn't particularly bright--the "editor" of the fake "memoir" even adds footnotes to correct all his namedropping mistakes--he's never just the butt of the joke.
Being detained as a suspected terrorist at Guantánamo Bay may not sound like comedy gold, but Gilvarry finds a way to depict the absurdity of the situation as Boy struggles to understand what's happened and hang on to his former life. (Early on, he makes a frustrated attempt to modify his orange prisoner's jumpsuit by ripping off the sleeves and hemming his pants legs.) At the same time, he drops in occasional details that remind us of the real-world consequences of these political detentions. The last section turns particularly dark, without becoming preachy--actually, Gilvarry even scores a strong satirical jab against well-meaning writers who think they understand the suffering of Guantánamo detainees. And, through all his ups and downs, Boy's Character Approved voice never wavers, which makes From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant
an unsettling but ultimately entertaining read.
[Image: Beowulf Sheehan]