There have been an awful lot of novels about 9/11, but this one sounded like it offered a fresh perspective.
H. M. Naqvi’s Home Boy (288 pages, Shaye Areheart Books, $23) tells the story of Chuck, a Pakistani student of literature, who had come to New York as a student but at the time of 9/11 was caught between financial jobs and working as a cabbie. He and his circle of four or five Pakistani’s—some immigrants like himself and some who have been living in the States with their families—are a feckless bunch, as only directionless twenty-two year-olds can be, and they are having a reasonably good time putting off any major decisions about their lives and just trying to have fun in what they see as a truly wonderful city.
After 9/11 this all changes. The mood of the city shifts, none too subtly, and they find themselves being stared at or worse. Racist epithets lead them into barroom fights, and the clear panic that their presence invokes, in the subway or on street corners, make them feel like they have shifted from a group of young playboys to a social pariah.
This feeling of unease is brought to a virulent head when they are arrested as terrorists after spending a night visiting a friend in a Connecticut suburb. Their treatment at the hands of the police is shocking enough—Naqvi shifts into brutal cop mode almost seamlessly—but even worse is the sense of vertigo they feel after the city they had come to love has seemed to disappear for them. Naqvi is talented at creating this slightly queasy feeling, and as Chuck wanders the streets and feels close even to ending his own life, Naqvi does a wonderful job of making his rootlessness come alive.
Naqvi also does a wonderful job of creating the mood of anger and frustration in the community of Pakistanis living in New York. Of course most of them are anti-violence, and some of their own number were lost in the destruction of the twin towers, but still they find themselves in a defensive position, suddenly aware that if they meet in groups they may be considered a “terrorist cell” or if they call home too many times they might be suspected of aiding and abetting the enemy and so on.
Onto this story of the world turned upside down, we have the painful coming of age tale of a young boy who isn’t really sure whether he belongs in New York at all. Chuck has an auntie in New York and the various friends I have mentioned; he has had a good job and he has the prospect of another opening up; but still he finds that he misses the life he knew in Karachi, misses his mother, misses that sense of clarity about who he was.
Even as he becomes closer to the families of his New York friends, and even as he begins to fall in love with the sister of one his pals, he still finds that the call of South Asia is hard to resist.
Navqi has written a great novel about New York in 2001 from an immigrant’s perspective. I recommend it.
H. M. Naqvi
Available at Powell's, Vroman's, and Amazon.