Zack Knowles and Daniel Wexler have been together for twenty-one years. Zack is a psychiatrist, Daniel an art teacher at a college in Virginia. In the fall of 2002, a few months before the Iraq War, a new artist in residence, Abbas Rohani, arrives with his Russian wife, Elena, and their two children.
But Abbas is not quite what he seems, and soon he and Daniel begin an affair. After love throws the two families together, politics threatens the future of both in ways no one could have predicted.
A novel that explores how the personal becomes political, Exiles in America offers an intimate look at the meaning of marriage, gay and straight, and demonstrates the breathtaking skill and daring imagination that have garnered Christopher Bram widespread critical acclaim.
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About the Author
Christopher Bram is the author of eight other novels, including Gods and Monsters (originally titled Father of Frankenstein), which was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Bram was a 2001 Guggenheim Fellow and received the 2003 Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Exiles in America
Zachary Knowles and Daniel Wexler had been together for twenty-one years. They did not describe themselves as "married." Their generation distrusted the word.
Zack was forty-eight, Daniel forty-seven. They lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, in a 1930s colonial brick house on Indian Springs Road, a quiet residential street near the College of William and Mary. Daniel taught studio classes in painting at the school. Zack was a psychiatrist, Dr. Zachary Knowles, with a small practice in town and an office at home, just off their living room.
Nothing much ever happened in Williamsburg, and people at the college tended to become set in their routines. When an Iranian painter, Abbas Rohani, came to town to be artist in residence in September 2002, nobody thought to invite him and his wife to dinner. Daniel persuaded Zack that they should have them over.
"What if they don't like homosexuals?" said Zack.
"Hey, they're Muslims," said Daniel. "What if they hate Jews?"
Only Daniel was Jewish, born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island. Zack was a native Virginian, a lapsed Methodist who had escaped to New York after med school to finish his training in the city of psychoanalysis. He had met Daniel in New York. They had moved south to Zack's home turf ten years ago, when Daniel took a teaching job at this small state college.
Daniel left a message in Rohani's voice mail inviting him and his wife to dinner. It was the wife who called back.
"This is Elena Rohani. We shall be delighted to come. Do we need to bring anything? Is it—how do you say?—potluck?"
Daniel assured her that all they needed was their appetite.
And so, late one afternoon early in September, the Friday before classes started, Daniel stood in the kitchen, slicing fresh tomatoes and squash from Zack's garden to grill on the hibachi while he talked to their good friend Ross Hubbard, who stood by the back door with a glass of red wine. The door was wide open—the weather remained warm and humid—and looked out on a narrow concrete terrace with an iron railing. A small wooded ravine sloped behind the house, its curtain of trees level with the railing. The last cicadas of the summer chirred in the leafy branches. Zack was at the other end of the house, seeing his last patient of the day.
"An artist who paints paintings?" asked Ross in his deep, leisurely drawl. "Isn't that kind of old-fashioned? I thought you said painting was what the dinosaurs did."
"He's Iranian. Maybe he doesn't know any better," said Daniel.
"You joke, but you may have hit on something. He could be in a time warp. Fundamentalist Islam forbids graven images. Figurative painting could be very avant-garde."
Ross was a courtly Southerner of the old school, handsome and hetero, almost sixty, much married and much divorced. He owned and managed the movie theater on Merchants Square, an art house that showed foreign and independent films and occasional classics. Zack and Daniel were among his handful of regulars. Ross was a rare kind of straight man. He loved books, art, music, and old movies. He had served in Vietnam but broke the stereotypes there, too. He loved to travel—he'd visited the Middle East twice. He might have been happy if he didn't fall in love with a new woman every five or six years. Currently between marriages, he seemed like the perfect extra guest for tonight.
"What're the paintings like?" he asked. "Have you seen any?"
"I've seen slides and a catalog from a show in Paris. They're figurative, but in an abstract way. Like Picasso or Klee. But not pastiche. Kind of neo-Expressionist, like Francesco Clemente from a few years back. But I like his stuff." Daniel liked it very much, in fact.
"So it's not ethnic or primitive?"
"Hardly. He studied in Paris and Berlin. He's probably better trained than I am."
They could hear Zack out front, bidding goodbye to his patient, an elderly woman who responded with a deliberate, end-of-the-session cheerfulness. Daniel knew that chirpy tone all too well.
"It must make you glad," said Ross. "To have a real painter in town, someone you can talk shop with."
Daniel frowned. "Not really. I don't especially like other artists. I just want to be friendly. I remember what it was like when we first came here and nobody gave us the time of day." Daniel wasn't entirely sure why he wanted to know the man. "It's not like I'm an artist myself anymore. I'm a teacher now. Full-time. I don't miss all that my-paintbrush-is-bigger-than-your-paintbrush macho bullshit."
There was a tread of shoes coming toward the kitchen, and a clack of toenails against the hardwood floor. A large black poodle with a pink tongue trotted into the room, Jocko, followed by Zack, a solemn man with a pale beard and a starched blue shirt.
"Hey there, Jock," Ross sang out, crouching down to scratch the happy dog behind its ears. The poodle wasn't trimmed like topiary but left woolly all over. "Hey there, Zack. How you doing?"
Zack only nodded, looking preoccupied, distant, sad.
"Bad session?" said Ross.
"Who-what?" Zack snapped his eyes open and saw Ross. "Oh, Ross. Sorry. No. Good session. Actually. Very good. Hi."
Zack was often like this after seeing a patient, spacey and distracted, still listening to the conversation in his head.
He went over to Daniel and kissed him on the temple. "That's right. We got company. Need any help?"
"No, dollface. We're fine," said Daniel. "Why don't you pour yourself some wine?"
Gay male couples are said to grow more alike over the years, like people and their dogs, but it isn't true. More often, each man looks more different over time, half-consciously marking out a territory of his own. Zack and Daniel were roughly the same medium height, but Daniel was trimmer, clean-shaven, and bald—not entirely bald but with two . . .Exiles in America
A Novel. Copyright © by Christopher Bram. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
That Christopher Bram is one of our finer novelists today is a given (The Notorious Dr. August: His Real Life and Crimes, Gods and Monsters, Life of the Circus Animals, In Memory of Angel Clare, etc). EXILES IN AMERICA is a very astutely constructed novel, one that explores the concept of displaced persons, whether those persons be gay men in a straight homophobic town, artists in a world of grounded minds, immigrant visitors in the land of the free, or Muslims in a path of fear guarded closely by the Christian ethic. Mix these possible people in a country post 9/11 and prior to America's (read Bush's) declaration of war on Iraq and there is a story brooding. For the most part Bram finely tunes this novel with well-drawn characterizations, a gift he continues to elucidate in his writing. But something has entered Bram's writing mind that is a bit disturbing: he seems to have lost some of the respect for his readers that has never happened prior to his novel. There are moments of 'dumbing down' the reader by excessive explanations of obvious knowns and even stumbling at the close of the book to speak not in the voice of the characters he has created but in his own vacillating voice as a writer - a section of this otherwise fairly tense read that breaks the magic and adds little. Daniel, an artist with painter's block who now only teaches art in Williamsburg, VA, and Zack, a psychiatrist who has given up his New York practice to follow Daniel to his present college teaching position, have been together as a couple for twenty one years, the last ten years at least of which have been an 'open marriage': both men are agreed that transient liaisons outside of their marriage are acceptable as long as they talk about them. Daniel, though in his late forties, has fears of aging and continues to pursue flings, while Zack has settled into a nearly asexual state. Into their milieu come a new guest faculty artist, Iranian Abbas and his Russian wife Elena (a couple with two children who also have an open marriage), and soon enough Daniel and Abbas are lusting after each other in what continues long enough to become an affair. The story is centered on how these four people react not only to each others' needs and fears, but how Zack and Daniel become enmeshed in the growing American suspicion of Middle Eastern 'potential terrorists', a factor surfacing when Abbas' older brother Hassan arrives from Tehran insisting that Abbas, Elena and their children return to Iran because of the incipient war between the US and Iraq. These conflicts focus the instabilities and consequences of the lifestyles of the four friends and introduces an entirely new attitude to Exiles in all its meanings. Bram writes brilliantly and moves his story at a terrific pace: EXILES IN AMERICA is a difficult book to put down once started. For this reader the only problem other than the ones mentioned above is the lack of charisma: it is difficult to truly care about any of the people in this book. But perhaps that is another 'alienation' Bram wants to introduce - a metaphor for the isolation among people that has been heightened by the current preoccupation with distrust of intimacy and people outside our individual realm. Bram poses questions, delivers the goods, and once again proves that he can create a fine story based on a tough theme. Grady Harp
In Williamsburg, Virginia, in their late forties William and Mary professor Daniel Wexler and psychiatrist Zachary Knowles have been a happily ¿unmarried¿ couple for over two decades yet. However, they look so solid to everyone who knows either of them that they assume the pair will remain together until one dies. However, their close loving relationship no longer includes sex between them instead Daniel has affairs while Zack has become celibate. When the college¿s resident artist of the year arrives, Iranian Abbas Rohani and his Russian spouse Elena with their two children, Zack and Daniel are the first to truly welcome them by inviting them to dinner. While Zack and Elena hold an intelligent discussion, Daniel tries to impress the arrogant attractive Abbas by showing him his paintings. Zack and Elena begin to forge a close friendship, but Abbas devastates Daniel by saying his paintings are poor. After seeing Abbas¿ superior work, Daniel and the Iranian hunk begin an affair that threaten both marriages at the same time that Abbas¿ pious older brother Hassan demands he and his wife return to Iran immediately. --- This is a well written interesting relationship drama starring four fascinating protagonists that is a modernizing of the late 1960s movie ¿Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice¿. The story line digs deep into the four prime players mostly through their relationships with the other three in a sort of rectangular connection. Though at times Christopher Bram seems to want to normalize the coupling which takes away from the prime premise that relationships come in all forms, fans who appreciate a deep character study will enjoy this fascinating look at Zack and Daniel and Abbas and Elena. --- Harriet Klausner
Christopher Bram has written his most thought-provoking novel to date. He delves sensitively but deeply into a number of topics currently rocking the American cultural psyche: the definition of marriage and family, the gulf between East and West, the tension between security and xenophobia, etc. It's a great read that will leave you asking yourself questions for which there are no easy answers.