Book Report

“American Dervish”:

“Infinite Country”:

“American Dervish” is the first novel written by Ayad Akhtar, who wrote one of last year’s absolute best books, “Homeland Elegies.”

It’s not as good.

When you get into something, you want more of it, you want to go on an excursion into the past, find out everything about it. Which is how I felt with Akhtar, and for a while there, I was hooked by “American Dervish,” because of the plot. That’s primary in a book, well, secondary to readability, which is sacrificed too often by both the erudite and the wannabe. But if you’ve achieved the baseline, if you can write, then it’s all about story, and too often writers, too often schooled in MFA writing programs, sacrifice story in the place of description and metaphor and… The truth is, if you want to be acknowledged by your peers, you must make a literary statement. Which means most of what sells is not written by these people. It’s a small, self-congratulatory cabal. The big sellers…yes, they’re often tripe, and forget the nonfiction memoirs, but what the public wants most, what people want most, is STORY!

And that’s what riveted me about “American Dervish.” Early last week I didn’t want to go to bed, I wanted to find out what happened, between the beautiful Muslim and the mesmerized Jew. Oh, you can see it coming, I’m not giving much away, but the truth is the plotting of “American Dervish” is ultimately superseded by the religious elements, the deep explorations of Muslim religion and life. And this is interesting, but the balance is off. Still… Some people are so attractive they have a glow, a charisma, it’s natural beauty, with minor imperfections, not the plastic surgery beauty of Hollywood, you never want to sacrifice your individuality, it’s death. Mina is irresistible to both men and women.

“American Dervish” is bookended by a narrative that is nearly irrelevant. So, if you start, you think you know where the book is going, but you really don’t. What’s it like to be young and impressionable, torn between believing and not, swallowing the edicts whole, believing in a specific version of the afterlife of not only yourself, but your parents. It’s easier when you pay fealty to the doctrine, you don’t have to think for yourself, unlike Hayat’s doctor father Naveed. Naveed is enlightened, but he’s also imperfect. And all of this parallels Ayad Akhtar’s real life, this is very thinly veiled fiction, like so many novels. Still, if you loved “Homeland Elegies”, you should check it out.

But really, I’m writing this about Patricia Engel’s “Infinite Country.” It’s strangely riveting.

To tell you the truth the publisher sent me an advance copy, not that I know why, and eventually I threw it out, yes, I have to throw out books, do you know how many are sent to me? Well, I donate them, but still…

And then they sent a hard copy. If someone constantly pushes you to read their book… I don’t think that works. The reader has to decide to delve in by themselves, and then they’re either hooked or they’re not, and usually they’re not, most books just aren’t good enough, it’s the truth, sorry. And like with music, people want to send their book to you like they want to send their CD, it makes them think they’ve done something, irrelevant of the ultimate results, in a virtual world physical actions have personal meaning when too often they shouldn’t.

But this hard copy of “Infinite Country” arrived before the publication date, I held off diving in until it was available in the marketplace and I could see what readers had to say. And it was all good.

And the truth is “Infinite Country” is not one of those books that hooks you immediately, but somehow you can’t put it down, you want to go back to it. You see in today’s overbearing, overwhelming world, it takes you to a complete other space, to Colombia, and back to the U.S., to the ignored people, the undocumented.

And yes, you can read “Infinite Country” as a polemic, but that’s not what it really is, rather it’s personal, a ground level examination of the feelings of people who go unnoticed, but live on the planet nevertheless.

I’ve been to Bogota, the weather is perfectly described here as eternal autumn, it’s weird, but if you’ve been there it will resonate.

And although crime and craziness has improved in Colombia, it’s still not as safe as most western countries. You’re alert all the time. As for upward mobility? The odds are so long as to be essentially impossible. And reading “Infinite Country” I wondered what it would be like to grow up alone, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. It made me think about most Americans…they do what they have to to survive. If that negatively impacts others, that’s their problem, caveat emptor. The salesman will lie to make the sale. The rich will cheat on their taxes to keep their money. What we’ve learned in the past few months, the past four years, is that America is held together by a very thin thread, it could tear apart at any time. No one feels obligated to do anything, the law is up for grabs, the fact our nation works at all is stunning. But what if you weren’t entitled to a say, because you were undocumented, and if you raised your voice…you risked deportation. That’s another point in the book, the undocumented are labeled criminals, when the truth is they’re anything but, they’re afraid of being sent back to where they came from!

The book is set in both Colombia and the U.S., with alternating viewpoints, and the truth is we all see the landscape differently. And the mores of America are different, you strive to get ahead, marriage is part business deal, unless you’re part of the underclass, uneducated. But in Colombia, in this book, so many people are struggling, looking for any ounce of happiness.

Every location comes alive. You feel like you’re there. You want to know how all the threads come together, and you think you know how it will play out, but ultimately it doesn’t.

So, “Infinite Country” shoots low, it’s personal where most books are broad, so they appeal. But it’s the personal that truly resonates. I don’t want to scare you away by telling you “Infinite Country” is an immigrant story, because it’s so much more than that, and we won’t have an Oprah-level “American Dirt” controversy because the author has Colombian roots.

“Infinite Country” is not very long, fewer than 200 pages, it’s not a big commitment.

But I’d tell you to read it digitally. The physical book seems like such a waste. I constantly wanted to search and highlight but you can’t search a physical book, other than by flipping the pages, which is very inefficient, and there’s no dictionary built in. And what do you do with it when it’s done? I’d say to give it to someone, but most people stack their books to impress others, especially on the east coast, it’s a feature of your Zoom call. But really, these people have not gotten the message, which their children have…that it’s not about what you own, but who you are, we live in an on demand world and you’re responsible for the cleanliness of the planet. They talk about all the energy that goes into creating and selling NFTs, what about physical books? The paper, the printing, the shipping, the returns…

I’ll get down off the pulpit. But I hate when oldsters want to preserve a past that no longer makes sense. Sure, I can see physical coffee books, even though most people read them once, if at all, they’re there for display, but the truth is information is digital. Music is digital. This is how we consume in the twenty first century.

But we’re still people under the skin. With the same problems.

Ultimately it’s about the people in “Infinite Country.” Their experiences, their viewpoints, their hopes and dreams, their losses. We can relate to humanity, and I could relate to “Infinite Country.” I read it in two days, because I wanted to read it, and it’s stuck with me, much more than “American Dervish,” much more than almost any recent book I’ve read.

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