At the funny, fearsome heart of this charming, caustic novel is a seemingly impossible journey: from making cutting-edge clothing in a New York atelier as a designer, to limbo as detainee in Guantanamo Bay, all in four short years.
It is the journey of Boyet R., or just plain Boy, the talented Filipino dreamer who winds up in a nightmare in “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant,” the debut novel from Alex Gilvarry (Viking, New York, 2012, 302 pages).
The Filipino-American fictionist chronicles the rapid rise of Boy as he arrives one year from 9/11 in New York and through hard work and the right connections, winds up the toast of the NY fashion circle. But shortly after, Boy falls from those nosebleed heights to hell, as “Combatant” shows him a helpless detainee in the notorious American facility for suspected terrorists. How does he wind up there?
Gilvarry writes “Combatant” with preternatural poise and sharpened humor, able to both describe and satirize the fashion scene Boy launches himself into. This section vibrates with energy and feels quite real.
Readers aren’t required to be familiar with the fashion world to appreciate these sections, but it does help to get the full effect.
Those sequences are the polar opposite of the glacial and blinding captivity that Boy suffers at the hands of the American authorities when it turns out he had been consorting with the wrong people.
The post-9/11 paranoia sinks its teeth into him, and the reader will share in his growing misery and hopelessness that overcomes even his considerable Filipino optimism.
What rivets is how Gilvarry runs those disparate halves together until they run into each other in an occurrence that Boy calls The Overwhelming Event.
“My story is one of unrequited love,” Gilvarry writes. “Love for a country so great that it has me welling up inside, knowing it could never love me back. And even after the torment they’ve put me through—tossing into this little cell in No Man’s Land—would you believe that I still hold America close to my heart? Stupid me, Boy Hernandez. Filipino by birth, fashion designer by trade, and terrorist by association.”
The clever thing about “Combatant” is how the book is supposed to be the actual “confession” Boy wrote while incarcerated in Cuba, complete with faux acknowledgements as well as corrections, and two essays from a fictional fashion journalist: “All material herein has been reprinted from the confession of Boyet R. Hernandez, composed from June through November 2006.”
Gilvarry plays this remarkably straight and draws the reader in once they become invested in Boy’s eventual fate. There are moments of true emotional highs and some pretty horrific lows in the right parts, matched only by the surreal atmosphere of the ending.
Gilvarry shows he can write both piercing political critique and fashion sendup with authenticity and conviction.
But what he gets most right is Boy. Though thoroughly flawed and at time shrill, Boy is a winning narrator, both immensely vulnerable and yet possessed of a tormented kind of inner invincibility.
A strong and charming introduction from fictionist Alex Gilvarry, “From the Memoirs of Non-Enemy Combatant” is ultimately a story of what it takes to lift up and then break down a man in full, even if his name is Boy.