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From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant

by Alex Gilvarry


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The critically acclaimed debut from Alex Gilvarry, a darkly comic love letter to New York, told through the eyes of Boy Hernandez: Filipino immigrant, glamour junkie, Guantánamo detainee.

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 undying love for New York City and his pursuit of the big American dream—even as the present nightmare of detainment chisels away at his vital wit and chutzpah. 

A New York Times Editor's Choice, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant unveils two of America's most illusory realms—high fashion and Homeland Security—in a funny, wise, and beguiling, and Kafkaesque tale for our strange times.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143123064
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/24/2012
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 551,294
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Alex Gilvarry was born in Staten Island, New York in 1981. He is the author of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, winner of the Hornblower Award for First Fiction and Best New Voice 2012 by Bookspan, and was selected by the New York Times as an Editor's Choice. His second novel, Eastman Was Here, will be published by Viking in August 2017. He is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree and has received fellowships from the Harry Ransom Center and the Norman Mailer Center. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Nation, Boston Globe, NPR's All Things Considered, and many other publications. He is a professor at Monmouth University where he teaches fiction.

What People are Saying About This

Michael Hastings

Finally, a young American novelist who has the guts to confront the absurdity of the last decade. Gilvarry has given us a sly, hilarious, and wickedly insightful book about living in the United States (or trying to live in the U.S.) in the aftermath of September 11th. Fashion, terrorism, New York and Guantanamo Bay: in the hands of Gilvarry, hilarity ensues. A brilliant debut. (Michael Hastings, author of "The Runaway General" (Rolling Stone) and The Operators)

Brock Clarke

One of the best celebrations and condemnations of American fear and ambition since Bellow's Augie March was doing the celebrating and condemning. (Brock Clarke, author of Exley and An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England)

From the Publisher

“A poignant reminder of what contemporary fiction ought to be. You will laugh, but you’ll do so nervously, sitting at the edge of your seat.” —Ana Grouverman, The Rumpus

Colum McCann

The deepest intelligence is poetic, incisive and inordinately funny. Heads up, folks. Alex Gilvarry just walked through the door. (Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin and Zoli)

Gary Shteyngart

It's rare for a novel to tread so fearlessly into the political and yet to emerge so deeply funny and humane. Gilvarry is a young talent on the rise. Watch him gallop through the mess we've made of our civilization with style and panache. (Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Absurdistan)

David Bezmozgis

This is a sly, witty novel. You'll be quoting lines from it to your friends. (David Bezmozgis, author The Free World)

Reading Group Guide

“My fear is that we’ll all get used to the stink” (44).

Boyet (Boy) Hernandez was a horny eighth grader when a beautiful classmate drew his attention away from comic books and into the glossy pages of women’s fashion magazines. More than a decade later, Boy recalls that sexually–charged Manila afternoon as he struggles to document how high fashion became the obsession that would rule—and eventually derail—his young life.

The coddled, middle–class adolescent quickly acquired subscriptions to “W, American Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, [and]I.D.” (p. 88). From there, Boy studied at the Fashion Institute of Makati (FIM), where he hoped to eschew a career designing bridal wear in Manila for nothing less than his own tent in New York City’s Bryant Park during Mercedes–Benz Fashion Week.

After graduation, Boy lands in America on September 13, 2002, with wide eyes and the immigrant’s dream in his heart. But even before he sees his doppelgänger shilling a midtown diner’s $2.95 breakfast, Boy knows that it would take more than talent to make it in the Big Apple. “One needed friends much more than lovers and enemies. This city was cutthroat” (p. 16).

He quickly parlays friendships with runway models and Philip Tang—a fellow FIM student and the genius behind the über–chic Philip Tang 2.0 label—into styling gigs for some of the hottest designers in town.

While he gains entrée to fashion’s in–crowd, however, Boy still struggles to launch his own label from his grimy apartment in the wilds of Bushwick, Brooklyn. He longs to relocate to nearby hipster Williamsburg, but first money—and then love—stand in his way.

After first spotting Michelle at an art museum, “walking along an installation of broken glass . . . in a Diane von Furstenberg wrap” (p. 95), Boy is smitten. But as soon as he’s dating the Sarah Lawrence undergraduate, he begins to resent her for luring him away from his work.

Distracted by both his ambitions and his lust, Boy lets himself be wooed into doing business with his neighbor, Ahmed Qureshi, a purported Canadian fabric importer. Later, Boy insists that while “each of Ahmed’s stories seemed incredibly far–fetched . . . his manner never struck me as dangerous” (p. 33).

The $2,500 Ahmed overpays him for a pair of custom–made suits quickly escalates to $70,000—or full financial backing—for the nascent (B)oy label. Friends and colleagues are suspicious of Ahmed’s motives, but their warnings fall on deaf ears.

Then—just as a profile in W magazine and a coveted order from Barney’s promise to deliver Boy fame and fortune—Ahmed is arrested for arms dealing and Boy is guilty by association. Now, clad in a Day–Glo orange prison uniform and confined to a six–by–eight cell in Guantánamo, the newly dubbed “fashion terrorist” ponders his past as he awaits his uncertain future.

Provocative and outrageously funny, From the Memoirs of a Non–Enemy Combatant masterfully skewers life in post–9/11 America as it boldly announces debut novelist Alex Gilvarry as a talent to watch.



Alex Gilvarry is the editor of the Web site Tottenville Review He has been named a Norman Mailer fellow, and his writing has appeared in The Paris Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.



Q. What inspired you to write a novel about Guantánamo through the brilliant—but unexpected—lens of high fashion?

When I thought of the book I was working for a children’s publisher in SoHo, New York, where I was surrounded by fashionable people—models, designers, boutiques. And my girlfriend was a model at this time, so I spent a lot of time at fashion shows and their after parties. This was during 2004-2007, which, in my mind, were some of the most violent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every morning there was a report on the radio of the war against terror. Guantánamo was also ever–present, specifically the stories of innocent men mistakenly locked up or sold for bounties. Men imprisoned without due process. This really struck a cord with me, to the point of obsession. So when I started writing the novel, the two worlds met in my mind and somehow made sense to me as a storyteller.

Q. Is the term “non–enemy combatant” actually used by the U.S. government? If so, what is it supposed to mean?

To my knowledge, they first used the term “not enemy combatants” (NEC) to describe those prisoners who were found innocent in military tribunals. And then they changed this to “no longer enemy combatants” (NLEC). In my book, I slightly altered it for the title, but the words are still a dehumanizing tactic. Notice that all of this circumvents the word “innocent.” So if a man is found to be an NLEC, as many were, that still means he was once an enemy combatant in the eyes of our government.

Q. Before writing From the Memoirs of a Non–Enemy Combatant, did you know that Coco Chanel had consorted with the Nazis? What is the relationship between fashion and politics?

I read an old biography of Coco Chanel while I was writing my book. It was part of my education in fashion design. It was only then that I learned about her liaison with a German officer and her collaboration with the Nazis during their occupation of France. This gets rather glossed over in her legacy.

Our politicians always appear well dressed and put together. How they appear is very calculated. In the last several years we’ve seen Jason Wu become big news for designing Michelle Obama’s inaugural gown. And before that there was a big stink about Sarah Palin suddenly wearing expensive suits during her campaign. These events were in the air while I was writing. But really the two worlds, fashion and politics, collide in the book because I wanted to take a man from a seemingly superficial background, someone who only cared about his own art, and catapult him into the political world of today. It was a way to veil writing about my own political awakening, under the guise of a five–foot–one fashion designer. I’m six–foot–three—how could anyone mistake us?

Q. Who, if anyone, do you think will be most offended by your book: fashionistas, terrorists, or the CIA?

Probably all of them. In my opinion, there isn’t enough fiction out there today that provokes or offends people. We need more politically risky fiction. Novelists used to weigh in, and quickly, on the world. Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion. They were our cultural critics as much as they were our novelists. Lately there’s been an overall feeling that we need to wait to write a novel about an event in order to have more perspective. And I can see that. But on Guantánamo Bay, I had all the perspective I needed. And here we are, ten years later. Perhaps the political novel will one day come back into fashion. If the vampires can rebound in this climate, I have to believe there’s room for the political novel too.

Q. What was the most startling discovery you made in your research for this book?

It was the stories of the actual prisoners themselves. The story of Moazzam Begg and Murat Kurnaz, and other men like them who were sent to Guantánamo Bay without proper evidence, and who were kept there for years under nightmarish conditions. It was the dehumanization of these men, and the lengths to which our government has gone to circumvent human rights that was most startling.

Q. Boy grew up in Manila’s “Tobacco Gardens, corner of Marlboro and Kools” (p. 5) and later returns to reside in “a luxury apartment complex called Manhattan City, a small replica of midtown Manhattan” (p. 297). Is either of these locales real?

I fell upon an area when I was last in the Philippines in Quezon City where all the streets were named after cigarettes. I remember there was Pall Mall Street and most definitely a Marlboro. I’m not sure if there was a Kools, so I may have taken some artistic license. On that same trip, I was in a mall in Manila where a woman tried to sell me real estate in a new development called Manhattan Garden City, a complex of residential buildings structured like a little New York. I took that idea and ran with it, modeling my Manhattan City after that. I thought if I were exiled from New York as Boy is in the novel, that’s probably where I’d live.

Q. Earlier in your career, you worked as an editor in book publishing, and you continue to edit Tottenville Review, the literary Web site you founded. How does your experience on the other side of the manuscript inform your own writing?

I usually edit book reviews for the clarity of ideas, which is not unlike editing my own fiction. Sure, clarity is such a simple lesson. But it’s surprising how unclear even the best of us can be in our work. From the graduate level to the professional, we can be tremendously elusive when writing because it is such an intimate process. It’s natural to shield yourself, and to cloak your ideas. To bring out the truth, even when writing fiction, is something I’ve learned from working as an editor.

Q. Your novel has already earned comparisons to the works of Junot Díaz and Gary Shteyngart, but it also has echoes of Joseph Heller’s Catch–22 and Don Delillo’s Libra. Who are your literary heroes?

I love Catch–22, both in its scope and ambition. It’s funny that you mention Don DeLillo, because he is a big hero of mine. I read his novel End Zone first, when I was in graduate school, and his voice resonated deep into my bones. I also look up to Max Frisch, Saul Bellow, Grace Paley, all of whom have penned immigrant tales of New York. So my book, I realize, is no small accident.

Q. You grew up in Staten Island, earned your MFA at Hunter College, and still live part–time in Brooklyn. In its own sly way, is this novel your love letter to New York City?

It absolutely is. I finished it when I first moved to Cambridge, and back then it was uncertain whether I would return. So I wrote this novel like I would never write another New York novel again.

Q. What are you working on now?

I’m writing a new novel about a war correspondent who loses his mojo, and sets out to get it back again by putting himself in imminent danger. I’ve been writing a lot of it in italics lately. Maybe it’s part of discovering this new character—he’s someone who needs to be heard at a time when everyone has stopped listening to him.


  • Is Boy a reliable narrator? Do Gil Johannsen’s afterword and footnotes make Boy seem more or less credible?
  • One of the novel’s recurring themes is chance versus fate. Early on, Boy believes that he is destined to meet Ahmed, but after the Overwhelming Event, he thinks, “there is no such thing as fate. Only coincidence” (p. 149). Do we tend to regard our happiness as fated but our sufferings as the result of chance?
  • Boy’s guards, Win and Cunningham, are depicted as nice, regular guys just doing their duty. Do you imagine they are typical of Gitmo’s military personnel? Who is ultimately responsible for the atrocities that have occurred there?
  • Boy regards Ben Laden and Special Agent Spyro Papandakkas as, respectively, Irish–American and Greek—despite the fact that both men are native–born Americans. Is Boy making a point, or do you believe he’s unaware of this ethnic profiling?
  • Throughout most of the novel, Boy is an avowed heterosexual, pursuing numerous women. Yet after he returns to Manila, he takes to disguising himself in women’s clothing and falls in love with a transgender performing artist. To what do you attribute this shift?
  • “For Boy, the publication of his confession could be the first step in his journey back to America” (p. 302). After all that has happened, why would Boy want to return? What does his story say about the American dream of assimilation and success in a post–9/11 world?
  • Does Boy’s name and diminutive stature encourage you to take him less seriously? Is this Gilvarry’s intention?
  • From the Memoirs of a Non–Enemy Combatant is an often hilariously satirical look at a serious subject. Does the novel’s humor add or detract from its underlying message?
  • Consider the ways in which art—including Michelle’s play, the BEHAVE photo, and Gilvarry’s novel itself—has the power to sway public opinion. What is the responsibility of the artist to the truth?
  • Interviews

    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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