Originally Published in The New York Times
Dwight Garner - September 14, 2020
The presidency of Donald J. Trump, like a motorcycle that sets off two-thirds of the car alarms on a city street, has affected different writers in different ways. Some have gone nearly mad, for worse and sometimes better; some have tightened their noise-cancelling headphones and pretended the moral disruption isn’t there.
For Ayad Akhtar, the Trump presidency has led to “Homeland Elegies,” a beautiful novel about an American son and his immigrant father that has echoes of “The Great Gatsby” and that circles, with pointed intellect, the possibilities and limitations of American life.
Akhtar is best known as a playwright. In 2013, he won a Pulitzer Prize for “Disgraced,” a dinner-party-gone-wrong drama that deals with Muslim-American life, 9/11, money and identity politics. Akhtar was recently named the new president of PEN America, the literary and human rights organization.
“Homeland Elegies” is Akhtar’s second novel. His first, “American Dervish” (2012), was a coming-of-age story about a boy in a Muslim family in pre-9/11 America. It had its charms, but was tentative and ultimately minor. Reading it you didn’t sense, as you do in this new one, the cascade of Akhtar’s thinking, informed as it is by wit and banked anger.
“Homeland Elegies” is a hybrid: It’s part memoir, part novel. The narrator shares the author’s name and much of his biography. Both were born in New York City and raised in Milwaukee by parents, doctors, who were born in Pakistan. Akhtar and his narrator each attended Brown University; each has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and has worked in Hollywood.
This novel gets off to a slow start. We meet many members of the narrator’s sprawling extended family: cousins, uncles and aunts. I was reminded of Edward Marsh, the English editor and translator, who asked: “Why is it that the sudden mention of an aunt is so deflating to a poem?” One wonders when Akhtar’s book will settle, and when he will find a direction in which to aim his stories. One wonders for about 85 perceptive but drifting pages. He’s been tuning up.
The narrator relates his fairly idyllic American childhood; he loved sitcom laugh tracks and Uncle Sam in the post office and his 10-speed Schwinn bicycle. His father loved America even more.
An elite heart specialist, Akhtar’s father had, in the 1990s, an elite patient: Trump himself, who had been having heart palpitations. The narrator’s father briefly treated Trump and, in the process, became enamored with his wealth and charisma.
He began to dine in Trump’s favorite restaurants, had fittings with Trump’s tailor and, envious of Trump’s sex life, began sleeping with an expensive prostitute. He also started to drink heavily and spent too much time in casinos. His fondness is largely unabated even after Trump becomes an erratic president and seeks to impose a travel ban that would apply to members of Akhtar’s own family.
Many of the most powerful moments in “Homeland Elegies” deal with the narrator’s life in the years after 9/11. There are powerfully written scenes of confrontation (you can see the film in this novel) between Akhtar and cops, strangers and others who are suspicious of him. One comment aimed at him, among the printable ones: “Can’t wait when we build that wall to keep you critters out.”
The narrator becomes a successful playwright. His life changes further, and this novel steps up to another level, when he meets a man named Riaz Rind, a very wealthy Pakistani-American hedge fund founder. Rind is this novel’s Gatsby. He may also put you in mind of Chuck Ramkissoon, the Trinidadian striver in Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland,” who longs to build a world-class cricket stadium.
Rind throws decadent parties and visits elite burlesque clubs and likes black truffles and rare bourbons; he introduces Akhtar to the good life. He invests a small inheritance for Akhtar and makes him several million dollars. Before long, the narrator is having trouble getting work done because he’s at Lake Como staying next door to the Clooneys. He indulges his pagan appetites.
There are seamy aspects to Rind’s affairs (the author tucks the details into electric footnotes), but he is no caricature and no buffoon. He understands the levers of power and intends to work them. He’s an intellectual who has a lot to say about the nature of debt and about Robert Bork’s contributions to the elimination of checks on private enterprise.
Rind and the narrator argue about Bernard Lewis and about why Muslim countries have fallen behind in some regards. Rind makes the point that Muslims had no corporations, so assets weren’t protected after an owner’s death.
“That’s why we’re behind,” he says. “Because Muslim laws were trying to take care of wives and children! We’re behind because we cared more about what happened to people than money! What about getting that message out there!”
Rind has a scheme to take financial revenge on certain people who have discriminated against Muslim-Americans. Will he pull it off? Will the narrator’s aging father survive a malpractice lawsuit?
There’s a lot more in this novel. There is good writing about Salman Rushdie and Edward Said (one of the narrator’s aunts really wanted to get him into bed) and syphilis and hoof stew and Scranton, Pa., and screenwriting, among many other things.
Akhtar’s play “Disgraced” ignited when a Muslim-American character admitted he felt an unwelcome blush of pride during the 9/11 attacks, an uneasy admiration for Bin Laden’s achievements in corpse-making. The repercussions of having written those lines come into play in this novel as well.
“Homeland Elegies” is a very American novel. It’s a lover’s quarrel with this country, and at its best it has candor and seriousness to burn.