REVIEW: Home Boy: A Novel

Written by Bashir Ahmed  •  January 2010 PDF Print E-mail

book_2H. M. Naqvi is a graduate of Georgetown and the creative writing program at Boston University. He won the Phelam Prize for poetry and represented Pakistan at the National Poetry Slam in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In recent years, he has taught creative writing at Boston University and currently divides his time between Karachi and the US East Coast. Naqvi's smart and sorrowful debut is at once immigrant narrative, bildungsroman and New York City novel, with a dash of the picaresque. Immigrant stories are often appealing not only because they dramatize the longing to trade oppression for freedom and prosperity, but also because they have the perfect antagonist: America itself.

Set in Manhattan just after Sept. 11, 2001, this novel follows three bright and likable college-age Pakistani men - AC, Jimbo and Chuck. Before 9/11, they fancy themselves "boulevardiers, raconteurs, renaissance men," delighting in the self-invention that New York permits. After 9/11, everything changes. They abandon their "Metrostani" lifestyle to watch CNN all day, feeling "anxious and low and getting cabin fever."

Finally, they decide action is called for: "There was something heroic in persisting, carrying on." They plan a road trip to find a mysterious Gatsby-esque friend (the novel is filled with allusions to Fitzgerald), and discover the same thing Gatsby did - there are limits to self-invention in America. Naqvi is a former slam poet, and his exuberant sentences burst with the rhythms and driving power of that form while steering clear of bombast.

Three in the big apple

"Home Boy" is a remarkably engaging novel that delights as it disturbs.

It is a book that can be read at many levels. It is very much an immigrant's narrative and even more a very New York City narrative. But for Pakistani readers it is also a very Karachi narrative - look out, for example, for the deep and deeply affectionate descriptions of desi food, rendered lovingly with the passion of a Karachi connoisseur.

It is also a Pakistani-American narrative. That is the part that I can say something about. For Pakistanis in America, H.M. Naqvi cuts close to the bone. The three key characters in the book are introduced very much as products of New York City. Immersed in, and at ease in, the city that has adopted so willingly them and which they have adopted so wholeheartedly. But as the story unfolds, the limits of that immersion and of their own ease with their adopted surroundings are tested. Those limits are tested not just for the characters but for the Pakistani-American reader.

For this Pakistani in America, at least, Homeboy explains how 9/11 has transformed the Pakistanis in America better than most analysts have been able to. The vast majority of Pakistanis in America will not be able to personally identify with all the antics of the three main characters nor with the tumult of their lives that 9/11 triggered - I did not - but most will immediately recognize the angst of entire lifestyles turned upside down by 9/11.

The days that follow Sept. 11, 2001, are fraught with desperation and chaos for 20-year-old Pakistani Chuck and his bon vivant friends AC and Jimbo. Once regarded as equals - well-educated, hip and thrill-seeking 20-somethings who befriended musicians, models and the intellectual elite at the city's in vogue underground bars - the friends are rattled by the changing attitudes of their once-friendly, now-suspicious acquaintances.

Author H.M. Naqvi's characters ring with truth and sadness. "Home Boy" gives voice to a group not often heard from in post-9/11 dialogue: young, educated immigrants who felt truly a part of the city's melting pot. Though Chuck and his friends each arrive in New York via different paths, their lives and their relationships are intertwined, making the place a home.

Title:              Home Boy: A Novel
Author:           H.M. Naqvi
Publisher:        Shaye Areheart Books (2009)
Pages:            288 pages, Hardcover
Price:              $23.00
ISBN-10:         0307409104
ISBN-13:         978-0307409102

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