A Good Country

A Good Country

by Laleh Khadivi


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A "powerful" (NYT) timely novel about the radicalization of a Muslim teen in California—about where identity truly lies and how we find it.

Laguna Beach, California, 2011. Alireza Courdee, a 16-year-old straight-A student and chemistry whiz, takes his first hit of pot. In as long as it takes to inhale and exhale, he is transformed from the high-achieving son of Iranian immigrants into a happy-go-lucky stoner. He loses his virginity, takes up surfing, and sneaks away to all-night raves. For the first time, Reza—now Rez—feels like an American teen. Life is smooth; even lying to his strict parents comes easily.

But then he changes again, falling out with the bad-boy surfers and in with a group of kids more awake to the world around them, who share his background, and whose ideas fill him with a very different sense of purpose. Within a year, Reza and his girlfriend are making their way to Syria to be part of a Muslim nation rising from the ashes of the civil war.

Timely, nuanced, and emotionally forceful, A Good Country is a gorgeous meditation on modern life, religious radicalization, and a young man caught among vastly different worlds. What we are left with at the dramatic end is not an assessment of good or evil, East versus West, but a lingering question that applies to all modern souls: Do we decide how to live, or is our life decided for us?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781632865854
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 354,535
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Laleh Khadivi is the author of The Age of Orphans, a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers pick, and The Walking. She has been awarded a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, and an NEA Literature Fellowship. She has also worked as a director, producer, and cinematographer of documentary films. Her debut film, 900 Women, aired on A&E and premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Khadivi lives in Northern California and teaches at the University of San Francisco MFA.

Read an Excerpt

A Good Country

A Novel

By Laleh Khadivi

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Copyright © 2017 Laleh Khadivi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63286-584-7


Laguna Beach, California, Fall 2011

They told him it was the best, there was nothing better. After they started, at twelve and thirteen and fourteen, his friends tried to convince him to try it. Rez, dude, they'd say, it's no big deal. You don't puke. You don't pass out. No one can even tell. It's like daydreaming, like that second just before you fall asleep, but for hours, they said, for the whole of eighth grade, their eyes glazed with the shine of the newly converted, and by tenth grade they gave up and now, start of junior year, it was habit to make fun of him every time there was occasion, every time they circled up to light and puff and smoke, these friends.

If he wanted, it could have happened last night, or even two weeks ago when Johnson's parents were in L.A. at an industry party and Johnson opened his house to anyone with a six-pack or a girl or a bag of weed. At midnight Rez found them in the laundry room, empty beer bottles and half-smoked cigarettes all over the place, and he sat and drank and talked like everyone else. When it was finally rolled and passed, Rez stood up right before his turn.

I gotta piss, and walked out of the circle.

Bullshit, coughed Johnson, the smoke coming out of his mouth in big clouds.

We all know you can't hang, Rez. Never have. Never will. Those Persians keep a tight leash on their kids ...

He felt a few laughs at his back but kept going, out of the laundry room, down the hallway, out of the house, and into the backyard, where kids rolled around on the perfect grass, swam half naked in the pool, and ran hand in hand to dark corners. He found a spot by the fence, beside the empty dog crates and gardening tools, and let go, his heart one big pump and burst, pump and burst, as the piss rushed out of him in a long furious stream.

* * *

He didn't know what he was afraid of. It wasn't like with the girls, a want and a want and a want until everything centered in his crotch and he moved forward without thought, without fear. No, this was different. He wanted it, to be inside the circle, to stay and smoke and laugh and feel whatever it was that was so good, but he couldn't stand the complete unknown. What if I lose it? What if I black out? What if I start crying? What if I get addicted? How much trouble will I be in if Dad finds out? All the trouble. I'll be in all the trouble.

In the dark yard he felt his father about him, a thick outline traced atop his own body. He looked around, shook himself dry, zipped up, and walked back to the house. He moved from room to room, looking, thinking, and tried to bring himself to do all that was being done by the kids in his grade and the sophomores and juniors and seniors above him, and the more he saw, the more he wanted to go home. A girl from chemistry lab caught his arm and pulled him into a doorway and then into a room of people, who saw him and yelled, Yeah! Rez! Dare! Dare! Dare! And he drank vodka straight from the bottle up to the count of ten and then stuck his head and hands up Sophia Lim's shirt to feel the smooth mounds and tiny buttons of nipples and wanted badly to suck but did not. When it was over and everyone clapped and yelled and Sophia turned away and tucked in her shirt, Rez walked quickly back outside and threw up in a planter of cacti. He lay down on a lawn chair, shivered, and spat the sour out of his mouth and counted the nine stars above him again and again, until Matthews showed up and said it was time.

Let's go home, man. I'm through with this.

They left without saying good-bye and found Kelly passed out in the back of the Matthewses' SUV, his hoodie backward on his head, face covered, arms crossed like a kind of corpse.

Dude. Get up. This isn't a hotel.

Matthews poked him and pulled the hoodie down and poked him again until Kelly sat up, yawned, and made a face at Rez.

Puked again? Ah, puking. How come the smartest kid in the class is always the stupidest kid at parties? If you would only smoke a little weed, you could keep your liquor down, didn't anyone ever tell you that? My dad told me all about it.

Kelly rambled on and Rez looked out the window and Matthews drove and after a time no one said anything. There was nothing to say, the night had come and gone and Rez still hadn't done it, but he knew he'd have to, soon, if he wanted things to stay as they were. If he wanted things to get better.

Last night at the beach wasn't it either.

The bonfire wouldn't catch and some guys from Santa Ana set up just down the sand and gave them shit.

Hey, faggots! Who's got the tightest pants over there?

Does your mommy know you're out so late?

They ignored the voices and kept trying their fire, and then an older voice shouted from the dark.

No way. No, man, his mommy don't know he's out here 'cause she's at home fucking my brother, her gardener, right now!

Man and Oh, man and That's fucked up and laughter surrounded them, and Johnson rolled the joint faster, and when it was lit, Matthews took his long deep puff and they passed it fast and smoked fast and again Rez shook his head no.

I'm good.

They left him alone and he worried about the fight coming and the black, gray, brown marks on his face from the guys in the dark and how would he explain that to his father, who would add to it, or take away from it, by calling him a girl or who knows what else? He didn't want his first time to be high and hurting, high and fighting and he waited for his friends to finish their smoke, but they didn't get a chance because the voices came out from the dark again.

Your mommy sure does take a long time, and with a Mexican too!

She must like it. That OC pussy needs a trim!

Rez looked at the eyes of his friends, Peter Matthews, James Johnson, and John Kelly, names of the Bible, apostles, each a right-hand man to Jesus, and he saw them now as one. Hunched over the smoky fireless fire, their shoulder blades spiking up through their thin T-shirts as they sucked at the joint and took the taunts. When it was done, everyone stood up and kicked sand over the two steaming logs that never caught, and the voices from the darkness stepped in, took the shapes of faces and bodies and walked around them, smiles shining through the murk.

It's cool. It's cool, my brother is done with your moms.

You can go home now.

Don't look so scared!

We ain't gonna waste time with you shrimps anyway.

Yeah, man, stupider than hitting a girl.

The apostles shouted all the way home. High and angry, they were a single voice bellowing through the truck. My brother knows a guy from Huntington, a senior, skinhead ... he would fuck them up for sure. Laughton knows how to get a crew together, football guys, they did it once when one of the Asian gangs gave them shit at South Coast, and on and on with dude and bro and fuck 'em and wetbacks until Rez's ears were full and his heart and gut clean with fear. Matthews, who normally drove like the sixteen-year-old stoner with a learner's permit that he was, now sped like an idiot down the 1 and the wide streets of Dana Point. Rez opened the window and let the fast wind hit his face and watched the streets and houses and yards pass by, all asleep, no witness to their aimless rage.

It was going to be today. Not because someone had an open house or there was a party or a girl he wanted to impress, but because everything had come into alignment and finally he didn't care. The recklessness was in him now and it made no difference if he puked, if he said stupid shit, if he got in trouble or addicted and spent the rest of his life begging on the street corner, a shame to his family, he was over it.

The midterm grades were e-mailed that afternoon and Rez forgot. He took the bus home and skated to his door and found his father, at three thirty, on the front steps of the house, a thin piece of paper in his hands, tie loose, eyebrows pushed together. Rez felt his stomach jump and he kicked the skateboard into his hand and dropped his head and ran through the classes. Math. Chemistry. Physics. English. Spanish. Government. Logic. History, it was history; it had to be history and the quiz on the first Iraq war the night after the bonfire. He took the quiz without studying and thought his GPA would cover it, but now his father was on the steps, which meant a B was printed on that paper and the ceremony would begin.

It started the same way it always started. His father silent and Rez silent and then the first question.

Do you like your life?

Rez knew there was only one right answer.


You have enough to eat? Good clothes to wear? A nice school to go to?

Yes, Dad, I forgot the quiz was that day.

It is not important. What is important is that you like your life. You are taken care of. Am I correct?

Rez said nothing, in the script he was to remain silent, and silence was the safest bet, the fastest route to the end. He nodded his head in agreement.

Good. Then I have done my job. And yet you have not done yours.

His father went on, his face set in anger, his mouth opening and closing around the words ungrateful, punishment, worthless, pathetic, loser, until Rez swallowed the sobs that came up his throat and tried to blink away tears filling his eyes. The rough sandpaper on his skateboard rubbed against his fingers and he thought of the apostles and how they would laugh if they saw him now, crying, and so he stopped and wiped his face and began to shout.

What did I do? Tell me what I did wrong! I didn't do anything wrong. I got a fucking B. That's all!

His father, surprised but not alarmed, closed his eyes and shook his head.

A disrespect. Your laziness is a disrespect to me, to your mother, to everything I have done for this family.

Rez heard the words, but this time they did not make it all the way down to his heart. He stepped outside himself and saw a boy, nearly as tall as his father, a father, a tyrant without cause, a mass of dark and aimless energy. He saw the boy in a bright light, innocent and right, and the father, misguided and dim, his only power humiliation. Rez kept shouting until his mother came to the kitchen window, until the squeaky eager yells of an eleventh grader came out, until he was shaking with the words Fuck you and I hate you and You are an asshole, so loudly and with such fury he could not pull back the new bold spirit fast enough, could not push himself back into the body of the boy in time to move out of the line of slaps that sprang from his father's palm onto his soft waiting face.

He skated the two miles to Matthews's house, some of it crying, some of it running. Matthews and Johnson played Xbox and said What's up? but didn't look at him. Rez didn't say anything and waited and finally Johnson looked up.

What the fuck, man? You look like a bitch that's just been dumped. Your face is all puffy.

Rez tried to swallow and put his hands in his pockets to keep them from shaking.

Whatever, man. Wanna go to the cove?

They stared at him for a moment and then another moment and Matthews threw his controller on the couch.

Yeah, let's do it. The cove. Today's a good day for the cove.

They picked up Kelly, and when they got to the cove, they walked around it and cleaned up the trash before saying one word. It was an old habit, a leftover from their elementary school beach-cleaning field trips. When Johnson's backpack was filled with pulped cigarette cartons, chip bags, used condoms, and spent lighters, they sat down in a circle. Cool clouds came in from the west, low and to the water, and a damp, icy breeze filled the shallow cove. Rez lifted his face to meet it, to let it press all over the hot prints in the shape of his father's fast hands.

One person pulled out a baggie and the other had the papers and the other had a Zippo and each of them had already done it a dozen times or more and Rez squinted into the cool wind and waited his turn. The joint came by lumpy and crooked and he held it between his fingers and then between his lips and all he felt was fuck. I don't give a fuck. Fuck him. He remembered not to breathe too deep. He didn't want to choke and didn't want them to laugh. But it was smooth. Smoother than he could understand, and the cold came in with it and he exhaled into the crossed legs of his lap. The apostles looked at him and he nodded without a cough and they smiled one big friend smile.

Yeah, dude. Yeah.

He sat up straight, stretched his back, realigned into another person in another life, and grinned.

Yeah. Totally.


The rumors gave him courage. Dude, that chick Sophia is totally hot for you. And Bro, you must tap that ass right away. Rez laughed but he also looked at her, in class or walking down the hallway, talking to her friends. He always pretended he was looking at something else, someone else, and she always stared back and smiled. He did nothing, and then one morning in chemistry his lab partner, Lila, asked if she could give Sophia Lim his phone number.

What for?

Lila stared at him through her plastic protective eyewear, her eyes big and brown and already laughing.

You know what for.

By the afternoon he had a text.

Hey Rez, this is Sophia. Wanna go to the vista after school? I've got a car.

He read the text ten times as if the sentence were Sophia herself, spread out in front of him, naked, rubbing her nipples and sucking on a red lollipop. That was how it was on the porn he watched, like that and some other ways, any way really, but always and only on the computer. In life he had seen little. A few girls with their shirts off, bikinis he took off in his mind, his mother once in the shower when he rushed to tell her he was a finalist in a statewide chess championship. The possibility of Sophia, her body naked in his hands, pushed through him with such boldness that Rez couldn't think or see or hear for the rest of the day.

Yeah. That sounds cool. I'm down.

They drove the steep and windy roads up to the vista and didn't talk. They listened to Lady Gaga. Girl pop the apostles called it and Rez couldn't stand it but didn't say anything because he was too busy watching her dance as she drove, little shoulder shakes when the beat got faster, and head moves as the music slowed. Her hair was long and black and soft and rolled down her back all the way to her butt. He let himself stare and he let himself wonder: Who is this girl? She was in tenth grade, they had never spoken and had none of the same friends. There was the time at Johnson's party but Rez could not remember it clearly and knew only that it involved vodka and puking, but that couldn't be enough for this invitation, for this ride. He rolled the window down and saw his reflection in the rearview mirror, an eleventh grader with buzzed light brown hair, a square jaw, and green eyes. He once heard one of Matthews's brother's girlfriends say Rez was going to be good-looking when he grew up, but she was a fat girl and most days he still felt like a kid.

They parked in the empty dirt lot between million-dollar homes. The view looked straight down the Laguna cliffs over the expensive beach shacks and Highway 1 and out to the Pacific. The ocean seemed huge from here, as far as you could see, the line of the horizon broken by a few small boats and the shape of Catalina. She turned off the car and snapped down the sun visor, checked her hair, and, satisfied, searched the compartment in her door. She handed him a delicate box of thin wood with elephants painted on it.

Can you roll?

Inside was a small plastic canister of crumbled weed, some papers, and a lighter, all organized in their own sections.

Is this how girls carry their weed?

She laughed.

Plastic baggies are for drug dealers.

He started to roll and she turned back to the mirror and opened her lips to reapply a layer of thick glossy pink lipstick, then she shook her hair out a little bit and looked at him, her whole face, the lips, the eyes, the hair, twinkling somehow.

For the first time since the rumors started Rez didn't look away. He stared at the endless black hair and white skin and the black eyes that turned up with a seductive delight. Her face, her voice, her name, everything about her was something else, different. She was not familiar like his mother and like the porn he watched but couldn't touch, and as this made him sit back, made the desire center in him, he rolled faster. When it was finished, she took the joint from his hand and the lighter from the box and wrapped her perfect lips around the paper and sucked in the flame slowly. She inhaled and laughed and coughed and smiled and her hair was everywhere and her eyes shone and Rez wanted to jump inside her.


Excerpted from A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi. Copyright © 2017 Laleh Khadivi. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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