The wannabe jihadi is not always a religious desperado drawn from the dregs of society. He is often (like Osama bin Laden) a child of privilege. And his motivation may be more worldly than not. Laleh Khadivi’s fascinating novel A Good Country features one such unholy roller.
The good country is the United States. Reza is an American of Kurdish-Iranian descent and an ordinary teenager. He’s bright enough to attend Berkeley, but his interests tend toward surfing and getting high. When a friend and then a lover, Fatima, shows signs of radicalization, Reza—motivated by hedonism and the wish to keep Fatima, with whom he has an intense sexual relationship—goes along for the ride.
But other factors are afoot. The Boston marathon bombings occur. So does a massacre resembling the one in San Bernardino. These events lead to an increase in hate crimes toward Muslims, including Reza and his father. Also to blame are radical imams, agitating about American atrocities towards Muslims abroad. Their goal, to erase the “gray zone” where Muslims and infidels live in peace, finds traction.
Khadivi doesn’t justify the path toward radicalism so much as show how effortless, even banal, it is. In this respect, A Good Country resembles Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, as it’s about an a-religious libertine fleeing vacuity and ending in conversion. Alternately, the first half of the novel echoes Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, when we see the more nightmarish and anomic aspects of California dreamin’. Meanwhile, Khadivi’s freewheeling writing style seems inspired by Beats like Jack Kerouac, which is all the more disconcerting when Reza and Fatima come to admire the stern prose of the Koran.
As accomplished in art as in storytelling, A Good Country addresses a central problem of our time. Is the American melting pot a reality, or is it a mirage?