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Unveiling two of America's most illusory realms—high fashion and Homeland Security—Alex Gilvarry's widely acclaimed first novel is the story of designer Boy Hernandez: Filipino immigrant, New York glamour junkie, Guantánamo detainee. Locked away indefinitely and accused of being linked to a terrorist plot, Boy prepares for the tribunal of his life with this intimate confession, a dazzling swirl of soirees, runways, and hipster romance that charts one small man's pursuit of the big American dream—even as the ...
Unveiling two of America's most illusory realms—high fashion and Homeland Security—Alex Gilvarry's widely acclaimed first novel is the story of designer Boy Hernandez: Filipino immigrant, New York glamour junkie, Guantánamo detainee. Locked away indefinitely and accused of being linked to a terrorist plot, Boy prepares for the tribunal of his life with this intimate confession, a dazzling swirl of soirees, runways, and hipster romance that charts one small man's pursuit of the big American dream—even as the present nightmare of detainment chisels away at his vital wit and chutzpah. From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant is funny, wise, and beguiling, a Kafkaesque tale for our strange times.
In this funny, sometimes sobering tale of the American Dream gone wrong, Boyet Hernandez, a fey-but-straight Filipino fashionista, arrives in the U.S. in 2002 to set his sights on the fashion world. He's got a fresh degree from FIM, the Fashion Institute of Makati, a sewing machine, and a small stipend from his parents back home. Possessing only the proverbial dollar and a dream, he's determined to hang his own clothing line on the gilded runway. But due to a combination of naiveté and blind ambition, Hernandez, who was raised Catholic, has the misfortune to accept funding from the wrong patron: the flamboyant and charismatic Ahmed Qureshi — an "angel" investor with some sartorial sense, mysterious millions, and a rather-too-vague global business.
The rest is history, so to speak, recounted from prison, a no- man's-land that's easily parsed as Guantánamo or one of its ugly cousins. As From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant unfolds, Boyet, or Boy, as he's called, is charged with consorting with terrorists, perhaps more. (In the mode that's become uncomfortably familiar, it's not really clear what he's there for or how long he'll stay.) Mustering his courage and earning a pen and paper for good behavior, he gives us a tour of prison living, recounting the twists of fate that brought him to be charged with being an enemy of America. As an ingénue caught in terrorism's ugly web, Boyet poses as the friendly, gossipy voice of all that has gone wrong with deportation and detainment.
With flashing but surely sharp scissors, Gilvarry's plot cuts some strategic holes through the horror of the last decade. And at its best moments the absurdism produces effects as shimmery and strange as the fashion garments that Boy hungers after. We take the ride with the unfortunate kid, whose name reminds us that he could be almost anyone. What would it be like for an ambitious, fashion-minded not-quite- grownup to find himself in some dark island prison? There's something quite remarkable about this Yves St. Laurent–loving voice narrating its own fall into the grungy uncomfortable cells, and there's comedy — albeit sad comedy — to be gained from a suspected terrorist spending all of his imprisonment pining after a copy of W magazine. There is, of course, something dangerous, too, about this gambit: it's simply too airy to match its subject. In the end, when the toll is exacted, Gilvarry's project feels like a well- crafted velouté that just about evaporates. Fashion is all well and good as a way in to make light, but in the end, torture is a heavy subject for comedy.
I couldn't help but thinking of Camus's The Stranger, a completely different sort of prison narrative, to be sure, and wishing for a little more of its masterful gravitas. That said, is the fact that Gilvarry is brave enough to make fun of torture a sign that our national flirtation with torture is receding or passed? As readers, we may hope so, but a return to innocence on such a subject now seems as unreal as a W photo shoot.
Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, a collection of poems. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.
Reviewer: Tess Taylor
Posted April 21, 2012
Prepare to be charmed. From the moment, Boyet Hernandez hits New York City from his native Philippines in 2002, his exuberance and talent starts to propel him to the top of the fashion world. He comes with nothing but determination to make it in the only world he cares about. Several years later, he has his own line (B)oy, magazine spreads and an American girlfriend. He has it all, or so it seems, until the knock comes in the middle of the night and he is hustled off to a military prison. His crime? Fashion terrorist.
It seems that his main financial backer, a Canadian Muslim who believed in him and invested the money to get Boy his start, has been arrested as a smuggler with terrorist ties, and a stash of enough fertilizer to make many bombs. There is the Indian gangster who tries to blackmail Boy--pay up or he will turn Boy in as a known associate of the smuggler. His American girlfriend turns their love affair into an off-Broadway play about falling in love with a terrorist. Even his publicist is a mark against him. An Irishman whose family changed their name from McLaden to Laden to escape the prejudice against the Irish a century ago, Ben Laden has come full circle and this gay Irish man has lost most of his customers who don't want to be associated with someone whose name sounds so much like Bin Laden.
A travesty of justice, no doubt. Boy is left in a prison cell under isolation, his only human contact guards and interrogators. But then, but then. Under the torrent of Boy's words, his exuberant explanation for everything, a worm of doubt starts to build in the reader's minds. Is he as innocent as it seems, or is there a kernel of truth to be uncovered?
Alex Gilvarry has created a memorable character in Boy. His exploration of the immigrant mind and the New York fashion scene is fascinating. Readers will walk away from the experience of reading From The Memoirs Of A Non-Enemy Combatant with many questions about what is correct when a country is dealing with terrorism and to what lengths we are willing to go to protect ourselves. This book is recommended for readers interested in fresh writing, great characters and writing that makes them question their positions.
Posted February 4, 2012
Posted February 1, 2012
Alex Gilvarry nails the wistful optimism of his hero, who sees America as the best of all possible worlds even as he ends up detained by Homeland Security. Boy's dreams of fashion stardom and his naive misunderstanding of what's going on around him remind me of Voltaire's feckless hero Candide. The political and social satire are both very funny and very pointed. A society that spends billions of dollars to keep us safe from people like this 5'1" fashion designer needs to be satirized, and Gilvarry does so superbly. The society's obsession with fashion and celebrity are very well done, too. This is highly entertaining, and also very serious- what are we thinking? I'm telling everyone to read it and discuss amongst themselves.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 20, 2012
Simply stated, this is a fantastic book. Not only is it an incredible page-turner, well-researched, and well-written, but it also balances two really exciting and two really hard-to-come-by qualities in a novel: gravity and humor. Well done, Alex Gilvarry! You've mastered the art. You will laugh and you will cry and you will not forget this book. I'm recommending it to everyone I know. FIVE STARS.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 20, 2012
FROM THE MEMOIRS OF A NON-ENEMY COMBATANT follows its protagonist as he chases the American Dream and in the process, finds himself trapped in a nightmare. Among the best "post 9/11" novels out there, Gilvarry's debut not only tells a compelling story, but also confronts the events of that day and their subsequent fallout with what can only be called virtuosity. You'll find yourself asking, "How did he do that?" Despite its bleak circumstances, there's a joyful tone to the book--it's very, very funny--and in this joy and humor the novel finds its deepest wisdom. With the confident tone of a master satirist, Gilvarry's debut takes some of the darkest moments in our recent history, and sheds a new light on them with his savvy wit and raw intelligence.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 20, 2012
No small thing - this is one of the funniest novels I've read in years. It's also a sad, beautifully crafted, weirdly relevant, and thoroughly original like no other recent book, reminiscent of Gary Shteyngart, Max Frisch, and Saul Bellow. Gilvarry deftly walks the line of high satire, somehow skewering the fashion industry even while celebrating it. And more, Gilvarry drops his protagonist, Boy, into an utterly absurd situation, but in doing so shows us not only Boy's humanity but our own. Fashion, terrorism, funny, smart - a tour de force debut. Can't wait for book two.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 20, 2012
This is an example of an author who can carefully balance humor and gravitas. The absurdity of the novel reflects the absurdity of what's happening all around us, and couldn't be timelier. Even more than that, it's a good story and excellent literature and I can't recommend it enough.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.