Alex Gilvarry’s debut novel puts a designer in Guantánamo Bay
A man languishes in a jail cell, called by a number instead of his name, held without charge and denied access to a lawyer. The stuff of Kafka? Or 21st-century America?Alex Gilvarry’s debut novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, is couched as the Guantánamo Bay jailhouse non-confession of supposed “fashion terrorist” Boy Hernandez. Boy, who came to America from the Philippines intent on making a splash with his own line of womenswear, instead finds himself cut off from his adopted homeland by razor wire coils, 90 miles of ocean and a post-9/11 justice system that has the power to detain him indefinitely.
Boy isn’t even sure what he’s accused of, although the smart money is riding on a connection to Ahmed Qureshi, his shady Brooklyn neighbor. Ahmed tells Boy conflicting stories about his past, claims to be Canadian despite a name and accent that suggest a Middle Eastern origin, and—most tellingly—has boxes and boxes of fertilizer stacked in his apartment. But he also provides Boy with one of his earliest gigs, paying lavishly for two custom suits, and when he offers start-up money for Boy’s own clothing label, Boy pushes aside his reservations about the man’s trustworthiness.
If the idea of a wrongly accused “fashion terrorist” making alterations to his prison uniform and quoting Coco Chanel about the nature of good and evil seems a little ridiculous, Gilvarry certainly has his share of laughs. Among them are a see-through burka in Boy’s collection, a fashion publicist named Ben Laden (no relation) and a smallish bedroom jokingly (and innocently, although try selling that to a military tribunal) referred to as a “sleeper cell.”
But as with all great satire, it’s difficult to tell where the jokes end and reality begins. As the pages turn, it becomes apparent that this whole thing really isn’t so far-fetched. The reader is reminded that Gitmo is an actual place, not the invention of dystopian fiction writers, and that it’s still open for business, despite the current president’s promises to shut it down. Toward the end, things get downright scary.
Tension mounts as Boy ascends the ladder of the fashion world while at the same time marching ever closer to the inevitable midnight knock on the door. But what really keeps the pages turning is the book’s most impressive accomplishment: Boy’s enthralling, hyper-readable, almost addictive voice. He brashly dismisses the nonexistent charges against him as “big-ass, bald-faced, barbed-wire lies” and recalls how comic books helped kindle his early interest in fashion with their “tight leotards that both the men and women donned, accentuating Catwoman’s nipples and Nightwing’s bulge.” Gilvarry’s glittering first-person prose provides no clues that this is his first effort. In fact, one of the novel’s few missteps is when he steps out of Boy’s voice for a few pages to give us a third-party view of the protagonist in the form of a fashion magazine profile, which is competently written but tedious by comparison.
For all the politically rich subject matter, at its heart this is a novel about the American dream. Upon arriving in New York for the first time, Boy takes a taxi to Battery Park to gaze out at the Statue of Liberty (who, forebodingly, wears a black veil over her head due to repairs). “My story is one of unrequited love,” Boy writes. “Love for a country so great that it has me welling up inside knowing it could never love me back.”
After his ordeal, it’s clear that Boy no longer believes in a country where everyone gets the same chances, where a nobody can become a somebody, where it is justice rather than Lady Liberty who is blind. The question Gilvarry seems to be asking is whether the rest of us have stopped believing, too.
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