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Homeland Elegies

Review

Homeland Elegies

Anyone seeking a revealing portrait of the life of Muslim Americans in the two decades after 9/11 can find it in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar’s HOMELAND ELEGIES. But its searing depiction of contemporary America is equally essential reading in this time of profound crisis for the country.

Featuring a narrator who shares the author’s name and other key biographical details, it’s tempting to see the novel as a thinly disguised autobiography. But Akhtar --- recently named president of PEN America --- is quick to dispel that notion, as the novel’s Ayad Akhtar notes while considering “how to express the complex, often contradictory alchemy at work in translating experience into art” and observes that “to indulge the question --- I would say --- and point away from the work back to the life of the one who created it only undermines the particular sort of truth that I believe art is after.”

Born on Staten Island, raised in a Wisconsin suburb, the son of Pakistani immigrant parents --- both physicians, though only his father, a prominent academic cardiologist, practices after moving to the United States --- Ayad grows up in a home where tension between his parents in their respective views of America is a constant. His mother “never found in the various bounties of her new country anything like sufficient compensation for the loss of what she’d left behind.” Meanwhile, his father --- a hyper-patriot critical of his son’s profound reservations about America --- is especially enamored of Donald Trump, who appears as one of the book’s characters when he’s treated by the elder Akhtar for a suspected rare cardiac condition.

"What it means to be home and what it means to adapt to a new, often hostile, culture are but two of the big ideas Ayad Akhtar explores with sensitivity and depth in HOMELAND ELEGIES."

The plot of HOMELAND ELEGIES is episodic, and Akhtar excels in crafting a collection of striking set pieces that illuminate the novel’s themes of alienation and persistent unease. One of the most chilling is Ayad’s encounter with a Pennsylvania State Trooper on an interstate highway after his car breaks down. What starts out as a casual conversation as the trooper summons a tow truck driver takes on a darker tone from the moment he casually inquires about Ayad’s birthplace and mentions he’s reading THE LOOMING TOWER, Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning study of al-Qaeda.

Another riveting scene is Ayad’s account of his experience in New York City on 9/11, one he delivers in the form of a monologue after his Pakistani American girlfriend discovers in his possession a small cross he obtained that day. Two days before the terrorist attack, Ayad had dreamed of such an event, one of several episodes in the novel where dreams and their interpretation are prominent. Ayad admits to the complicated feelings that day engendered in him, ones that surface in his work as a dramatist:

“I, too, had long avoided revisiting the terrible isolated sadness of it all, avoided any reminder of our repulsive condition, at once suspects and victims when it came to this, among the greatest of American tragedies.”

Though Ayad is blunt in his assessment of the country he calls “a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment was paramount and civil order always an afterthought,” and harbors no illusions about the “treachery of an American society that abandoned the weak and monetized the unlucky,” some of the most lacerating critiques come from the mouths of two other striking characters.

The first is Riaz Rind, a Pakistani American hedge fund manager to whom Ayad attaches himself like a pilot fish to a shark, in a friendship that allows him to circulate as “an honorary member of the privileged class,” while reaping the considerable financial rewards of moving in that rarified circle. “In this country, the white majority is basically blind to the worst in themselves,” he tells Ayad. “They see themselves in the image of their best, and they see us in the image of our worst.” The ruthless Rind puts his contempt into action, fashioning a cunning, if ethically dubious, scheme to inflict revenge on perpetrators of anti-Muslim bigotry.

To Mike Jacobs, a Black Hollywood agent with a “predilection for Republican politics,” the predatory essence of American capitalism is clear. “Yes, money had always been central to notions of American vitality,” Akhtar writes in describing Jacobs’ cutthroat philosophy, “but now it reigned as our supreme defining value. It was no longer just the purpose of our toil but also our sport and our pastime.” Predicting the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Jacobs notes that he had “just felt the national mood, and his particular genius was a need for attention so craven, so unrelenting, he was willing to don any and every shade of our moment’s ugliness, consequences be damned.”

By the end of the novel, Ayad’s father’s ardor for Trump has cooled, along with a good bit of his admiration for what America has to offer, even as he’s achieved ample success in his adopted homeland. A friend reminds him, “We’re all wondering in our own different ways about how to find our way back home,” and Akhtar pays eloquent homage to that universal quest.

What it means to be home and what it means to adapt to a new, often hostile, culture are but two of the big ideas Ayad Akhtar explores with sensitivity and depth in HOMELAND ELEGIES. It isn’t a difficult novel, but it’s a complex and challenging one. Its unblinking assessments of American life in a time of unprecedented change for both natives and immigrants feel especially urgent.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 17, 2020

Homeland Elegies
by Ayad Akhtar

  • Publication Date: September 15, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316496421
  • ISBN-13: 9780316496421