Laila Lalami’s new novel con­sid­ers alien­ation

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BOOKS - By Rayyan Al-Shawaf Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Malta. His de­but novel, “When All Else Fails,” will be pub­lished by In­ter­link Books this spring.

In Laila Lalami’s Pulitzer Prize fi­nal­ist, “The Moor’s Ac­count,” the au­thor, a Los An­ge­les-based Mo­roc­can im­mi­grant, cen­tered her novel on an ac­tual North African slave driven across the New World. Now, in “The Other Amer­i­cans,” she plunges into the lives of fic­tional yet con­vinc­ingly real in­di­vid­u­als who, de­spite their dif­fer­ences in ori­gin and so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tion, all have a whiff of the un­wanted hov­er­ing about them, and a des­per­ate wish for dig­nity lodged within them. Th­ese are Amer­i­can men and women at whom many a com­pa­triot looks askance.

“Had he suf­fered? Had he called out for help?” muses Nora Guer­raoui of her fa­ther, Driss, killed in a hit-and-run just out­side the diner he owned. “How long had he lain on the as­phalt be­fore his breath ran out?” Nora, a strug­gling mu­sic com­poser in her late 20s who lives in Oak­land, moves back to her home­town in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, where the fa­tal in­ci­dent oc­curred, to try to de­ter­mine what hap­pened.

Nora’s quest, it turns out, is the ar­ti­fice through which Lalami em­barks on a mul­ti­char­ac­ter study. The story is re­lated by nine nar­ra­tors, of­ten with noth­ing in com­mon be­sides the small Mo­jave Desert town they call home, and the vary­ing de­grees of “oth­er­ing” to which they are sub­jected.

The nar­ra­tors in­clude Driss him­self, who looks back on his life in the pe­riod lead­ing up to his death. His chap­ters and those of his wife, Maryam, who im­mi­grated with him from Morocco years ear­lier, re­veal the ex­tent to which he, in his daugh­ter Nora’s words, “stood out like a tall weed in a clipped hedge.” Nora be­lieves the hit-and-run was de­lib­er­ate, much like the ar­son that destroyed the fam­ily’s dough­nut shop in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the 9/11 at­tacks.

Oc­cu­py­ing a much more

ten­u­ous po­si­tion in Amer­ica than the Guer­raouis is Efraín, an un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant from Mex­ico. Hav­ing moved to Cal­i­for­nia from Ari­zona and se­cured me­nial work, Efraín wants noth­ing more than to keep his head down and toil away for pen­nies. Yet he wit­nessed the hit-and-run and told his wife about it; now she is adamant that he re­port the crime to the po­lice, de­spite his fear of de­por­ta­tion.

Mean­while, D.C. trans­plant Erica Cole­man, the de­tec­tive tasked with in­ves­ti­gat­ing the in­ci­dent, wor­ries about how her ap­par­ently ho­mo­pho­bic hus­band will re­act to their pubescent son’s same-sex at­trac­tion. She also en­dures pointed un­co­op­er­a­tive­ness from her su­pe­rior at the po­lice sta­tion: “It was like he was test­ing me,” she ob­serves, “try­ing to see if I could close this case with­out help from his uni­forms.” Why is Cole­man given the cold shoul­der? Be­cause she’s a woman? An out-of-towner? Or is it be­cause she’s black?

There is an un­de­ni­able per­func­tori­ness to all this; it feels as though Lalami is check­ing off a list of groups that so­cial jus­tice ad­vo­cates have des­ig­nated — how­ever ac­cu­rately — as dis­ad­van­taged. More­over, she will at times skimp on show­ing in fa­vor of telling, as with Nora’s rue­ful rec­ol­lec­tion, “Grow­ing up in this town, I had long ago learned that the sav­agery of a man named Mo­hammed was rarely ques­tioned, but his hu­man­ity al­ways had to be proven.”

A char­ac­ter named Jeremy ar­rests the ma­te­rial’s slouch to­ward pre­dictabil­ity, in part be­cause he’s a white man who has long strug­gled with his own marginal­iza­tion. As an ado­les­cent (dur­ing which time he was in­fat­u­ated with his class­mate Nora), he had to con­tend with the shat­ter­ing im­pact his mother’s death had on his fa­ther; Jeremy’s grades plum­meted, and he grew hope­lessly over­weight. As an adult, though hold­ing down a job as a sheriff ’s deputy (Cole­man is a col­league), he is an emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally scarred Iraq War vet­eran.

Nora and Jeremy, de­spite or per­haps be­cause of their suf­fer­ing, kin­dle a flick­er­ing ro­mance. Through this de­vel­op­ment, Lalami ju­di­ciously en­sures that “The Other Amer­i­cans” is pro­pelled by two sto­ries. We want to find out why Driss was killed, but we’re also keen to see how Nora will choose to live.

The tale’s con­clu­sion proves at once grim and hope­ful. In a tech­ni­cal sense, this re­quires skilled cal­i­bra­tion by the au­thor. Cru­cially, how­ever, Lalami’s panop­tic view is what en­ables her to strike such a bal­ance at the end, and what es­tab­lishes the novel’s iden­tity from the be­gin­ning. Af­ter all, “The Other Amer­i­cans” might have emerged as a cir­cum­scribed ac­count of a crime with one vic­tim and one per­pe­tra­tor. In­stead, Lalami gives us a search­ing ex­plo­ration of the lives of sev­eral in­di­vid­u­als with whom main­stream Amer­i­can so­ci­ety has a vexed re­la­tion­ship.

‘The Other Amer­i­cans’ By Laila Lalami, Pan­theon, 320 pages, $25.95

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