Review by Jon Reiss
From the Memiors of a Non-Enemy Combatant
by Alex Gilvarry
(Viking, 320 p.)
From the Memiors of a Non-Enemy Combatant is the story of Boyet (Boy for short) Hernandez, a Philippine-born aspiring designer who, having grown up in admiration of his fabric slinging uncle, lusts for a future as New York’s most desirable, heterosexual male clothing designer (of which there area bout 10.) Living off a meager allowance from his parents, Boy is barely able to afford an apartment in Bushwick. Meanwhile he yearns for success. To him, this means — among other things — an apartment on the illustrious streets of Williamsburg. Stranded in Bushwick, far from the glamour of the fashion world, he comes into contact with a seemingly affable if not mercurial fabric salesman named Ahemd who commissions him to make a pair of suits, eventually offering to fund his entire debut clothing line. Boy’s desire for success is so that he accepts Ahmed’s offer despite looming doubts and distrust of his methods. As Boy’s dreams begin to come to fruition, the stage is set for his eventual downfall, one that results in him being stranded in a government facility for detainees far more remote than the Kosciuszko stop on the J train. Writing this tale as a long form confession from the offshore facility nicknamed “No Man’s Land” Boy is forced to come to terms with the fact that the decisions made to bolster his (B)oy fashion label also resulted in the new, notorious label bestowed upon him by the media: “The Fashion Terrorist.”
Switching from descriptions of the pseudo-bohemian life of a allowance-receiving, aspiring artist who lives in Bushwick and dates a girl at Sarah Lawrence to the life of a detained enemy-of-the-state awaiting tribunal, FMOANEC is delivered with a precise and trenchant eye for satire. From his girlfriend with a penchant for gratuitous use of the word, “random,” to Boy’s attempt at cutting the sleeves of his orange detainee jumpsuit in order to use the extra fabric to taper his pants, to Boy’s publicist who cannot get on a plane because his name is Ben Laden, the fashion industry, the post 9/11 US government, and the lives of bohemian hipsters are given a solid tussle.
“I know this all sounds sophomoric but such is the fashion industry.”
Littered with footnotes that come from an unidentified, presumably government-affiliated source, FMOANEC is unique in its narrative delivery. It seems a trend lately for novels to employ narrators that aren’t taken especially seriously, often unreliable, but not on purpose. Though Gilvarry’s protagonist seems at times naive and self-involved, his foibles are presented so as not to be poked fun at or judged, but merely to show how one, when driven, can become wrapped up in an extraordinarily fucked-up situation. Even if the satire of the fashion industry doesn’t compel you, nor a send-up of the Williamsburg trust-fund hipster lifestyle, or even a critique the hyper paranoid post-9/11 anti terrorism effort, FMOANEC as a book about ambition and desire is worth its weight.
Plainly put, Gilvarry’s debut novel is an absolute breath of fresh air for two major reasons. From The Memoiors of a Non Enemy Combatant feels like the first novel with substantial buzz to come along in quite some time that doesn’t try and wow the reader with the author’s intelligence. Not to say that GIlvarry’s intelligence doesn’t shine through, but it’s understated, and not delivered via injections of incremental quirk in the protagonists voice. Also, while FMOANEC isn’t entirely reliant on plot, there’s plenty of plot to speak of. Though the plot is delivered in a way that isn’t entirely conventional structurally, we’re still being taken for a ride here, one which, even if the subjects mentioned (Fashion, post 9/11 paranoia) on the back cover don’t grab you, quickly proves itself well worth taking.