From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant

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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 ...

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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 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Gilvarry’s debut gracefully tackles politically charged subject matter, acknowledging the validity of the terrorist threat as well as the danger of stereotyping and fear-mongering. In 2002, Boyet Hernandez moves from Manila to New York with dreams of becoming a famous fashion designer. Four years later, he almost does just that, earning the name “Fashion Terrorist” after being arrested by Homeland Security and taken to Guantánamo, accused of war crimes that were part of a terrorist plot. As he is relentlessly questioned, Boyet shares the story of his life in—and “unrequited love for”—America, recounting the years leading up to his imprisonment with wit and compassion, curious as to where he went wrong. As an immigrant struggling to make ends meet, he accepted help from gangsters and men on international watch lists. However, he also socialized with the city’s fashion elite, raising the question of how guilty one is by association. Like his idol Coco Chanel (arrested in 1943 for her Nazi ties), Boyet is thrust into a public spectacle of good and evil. An engaging victim of uncertain times, he’s a protagonist who will appeal to readers of all political persuasions. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
A would-be fashion mogul comes to America to pursue the American Dream, only to wind up wearing an orange Gitmo jumpsuit. Gilvarry's debut novel aspires to be an allegory about how immigrant ambition has become stifled in the wake of post-9/11 paranoia. The narrator, Boyet Hernandez, arrives in New York City from the Philippines in 2002, eager to pursue a career in haute couture. But the reader knows immediately that his dreams were dashed: The novel is written in the form of a prison memoir, composed at the suggestion of his jailers as he awaits judgment from a military tribunal for allegedly consorting with terrorists. Chapters begin with observations about the camp's cramped quarters and barely humane regulations, but the story mostly focuses on Boyet (nicknamed Boy) as he makes his slow rise in the fashion world, consorting with models, begging for favors from established designers and hustling for financing. That last effort is what gets him in trouble, because his main patron is a sketchy landlord who possesses a questionable amount of weaponize-able fertilizer. Gilvarry keeps the tone of the story lightly satirical without diminishing the seriousness of Boy's predicament, and he skillfully captures the frenetic world of striving designers and Brooklyn hipsters. The novel's chief flaws have more to do with structure than tone. Characters in the story besides Boy rarely become more than strictly functional (a publicist with the unfortunate name of Ben Laden is a thin signifier of law-enforcement ineptitude), and shifting between Boy's incarceration and Manhattan memories grows repetitive and undramatic until the closing pages. A fashion writer's faux annotations add little, and his afterword closes the book on a melodramatic note that clashes with Boy's character. Gilvarry is a talented writer and observer, but the satirical elements could have been better tailored.
Daniel Asa Rose
The disjunction between Gitmo and Prada is too delicious not to put a sideways smile on your face. You'll also be twisting a lip upward at the Bellowesque brio of Gilvarry's language…In many ways, this novel is a left-handed love letter to America. Whether describing New York's subway system…or the Bronxville campus of Sarah Lawrence …Gilvarry shows that he cherishes a country he clearly feels is at risk.
—The New York Times Book Review
Sharply written and wryly witty, touching on the sensitivities and paranoia of post-9/11 America...Combining a Kafkaesque hero with a captivating "coming to New York" story, Gilvarry's debut is a timely and touching triumph.
Library Journal
Aspiring hopeful Boyet Hernandez just about has it made in the New York fashion world with his (B)oy label when he's detained late one night and taken to Gitmo, where he's accused of terrorist connections. He's also handed a Quran—never mind that Hernandez is an ex-Catholic from Manila. There's some good noise about this debut from Gilvarry, editor of the website Tottenville Review, so pay careful attention.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143123064
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 12/24/2012
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 387,068
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Alex Gilvarry is the founding editor of the website Tottenville Review; he has been named a Norman Mailer Fellow; and he has contributed writing to the Paris Review, Vogue, and NPR's All Things Considered. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Alex Gilvarry
As a native Staten Islander of Filipino descent who attended college and grad school in Manhattan, you’ve seen many New Yorks. How has this informed your writing in general—and your hero’s experience in particular?
As a kid in the eighties, because we lived on Staten Island, Manhattan was a very dangerous place in my mind, where my father rode graffiti-ridden subways to work, and got into altercations (sometimes physical) on the way home. Brooklyn was a place we never went because of its image on the local news. Knifings and shootings happened in Brooklyn while you were waiting for the school bus. When my mother started working reception in Bensonhurst at a garment factory called Phyllis Baby Wear, I thought she’d never make it out alive. Whatever Manhattan seemed like to me, Brooklyn was ten times worse. But when I moved into the city in the nineties and eventually made the young college graduate’s migration into Brooklyn, both boroughs had already been refurbished into a type of fantasyland for the middle class. SoHo was full of models and boutiques. Williamsburg had converted lofts and artsy girls. Park Slope was like living in the Cosby Show. This was a far cry from Travis Bickle’s New York in Taxi Driver, a film I grew up romanticizing. So I fell in love, and easily. The city I had feared as a kid suddenly seemed like a new, limitless place to succeed in the arts, and not just as a police sketch artist. This is how my hero sees the city when he arrives from the Philippines. Everything I write about New York in the book, through my hero’s eyes, is pretty much true. I love the city. But this love affair with New York is like all love affairs: there’s a good dose of jealousy and resentment and feelings of ownership along with all the swooning.
The hero of FROM THE MEMOIRS OF A NON-ENEMY COMBATANT is a new addition to a long line of outsider narrators in American fiction—Huck Finn, Ishmael, Holden Caulfield, Augie March, Nathan Zuckerman. Do you feel there is something distinctive about the American experience that invites this type of storytelling?
Absolutely. Where as British fiction deals a lot with class or being the top colonial dog, American fiction is distinctively “outsider.” Our lineage arises out of immigration in some form—with the exception of Native American heritage—and attached are some very dark histories. Our greatest struggles, too, are also very recent. Segregation, the civil rights movement, etc. The American experience is very much about being the outsider, or fearing the outsider. I think that’s why this type of storytelling continues to be told and retold.
While writing From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, you worked as an editor at a major publishing house.Did being an insider in the publishing industry inform your writing in any way?
It did in as how publishing is a culture industry. The hero of my novel is trying to infiltrate the fashion world, another culture industry, so the players you work with are the same. Agents and publicists and editors, and some big personalities. In all culture industries there’s a tremendous focus on placing the talent, selling the talent, and nurturing the talent. While I was editing my novel at night, I was thinking about the game makers at work at Picador during the day. Also, what helped me most while writing was reading the great contemporary authors, some of whom we published.
The protagonist in your novel is mistakenly accused of being a terrorist and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay to await his combatant status review. This January marks the 10th anniversary of Guantanamo Bay. With this story, what message are you hoping to impart to readers about the existence of and tactics used at Guantanamo Bay? Why did you choose fiction as a vehicle to get this message across?
Fiction is the only thing I’m good at, and so when I was feeling really disturbed about what was happening in Guantanamo Bay, and when I realized that innocent men mistakenly imprisoned there was not just a rare anomaly, I was compelled to write this novel because it was the only outlet for my grievances at the time. I discovered a much more complicated answer to the problem of Guantanamo than I expected—which is why it is still open ten years later. But in the end, the principles remained the same. I’m talking about the principles of a fair trial, to be charged with a crime rather than imprisoned on suspicion alone, and that of humane interrogations. When these principles are violated as they have been, regrettable mistakes are made at the cost of people’s lives, many of those innocent. So if even one reader walks away with something of this notion, then the novel, for me at least, is successful. I have to believe that fiction, particularly the novel, still has the power to influence the way people think, or at least introduce a strand of thought that did not occur to them. I know novels have certainly affected me this way over the years. That’s why I read them.
Who have you discovered lately?
I was at the Boston Book Festival recently and picked up the novel Stoner by John Williams. Not John Williams the film composer, but the other guy. Discovering new writing can be like finding religion. You have to discover it for yourself at a particular time in your life, and when it comes unexpected, it feels like you’ve been saved. This is something that’s very relevant to the protagonist of Stoner, a man who spends his entire life at the same University, first as a student, then as teacher, and whose life changes course because of literature. Not much else happens to him, but it’s one of the most addictive and emotionally riveting books I’ve ever read. The prose is quiet, clear, precise. And yet I read the book as if it were a thriller. I’m also reading The Black Banners, by former FBI-agent Ali Soufan, who seems to have been the most valuable interrogator in the war against al-Qaeda, and a major opponent of enhanced interrogation techniques. It’s amazing how much of his book has been redacted by the C.I.A. There are pages completely blacked out. In one chapter the word “I” has been removed. I think many of us—me included—look at censorship as a thing of the past, but it isn’t. It’s very real and is happening right now.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 21, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Prepare To Be Charmed

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 1, 2012

    A 21st century Candide

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • 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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 20, 2012

    A terrifically bold debut...

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 20, 2012

    A favorite book of 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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2012

    Very, very funny and well crafted.

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2012

    Strange but good.

    Didn't see this one coming. The story moves along quite well even with all the back tracking. I'm glad I read it.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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