How does a nice young man from a good family become an Islamic extremist? That’s the question Laleh Khadivi attempts to answer in A Good Country. While we know where the novel is going, the fact that the ending is so chilling proves that she succeeds admirably.
Rez is the Southern California son of America-loving Iranian immigrants, a straight A student, a surfer dude. When he finally succumbs to peer pressure and takes his first hit of pot, partly in response to his strict father’s impossible expectations, his strait-laced life begins to implode. The novel is in large part his search for who he is, where he fits in.
Khadivi has an uncanny ability to describe SoCal private high school life in an upper middle class milieu filled with swimming pools and expensive cars and indulgent parents, complete with drugs and sex and the lies teenagers routinely tell their parents. She brilliantly captures the way millennials talk without pandering. If she’s not a surfer, she has an intuitive understanding of that world, its lure and beauty and the consuming passion of its devotees.
It would be easy to make these characters stereotypes. Instead, Khadivi, an Iranian expat and filmmaker, draws complex, believable portraits of individuals who struggle to find their place in American society. Despite his violent behavior, we feel empathy for Rez’s father, whose belief in the promise of America is hard-won. And Rez’s path to Islam is gradual and credible. We understand the seduction with which the militants draw him in, using promises of a world where Muslims are respected:
And then the imam looks at me straight on. Yes, brother Raqqah, the capital of a country with no borders, a country for believers, for the devout, for citizens of Allah. And they need men. Men to move there and start their lives. Men and their wives. There is an open invitation to join in. Simply pack your belief in Allah and show up. There will be jobs, a house for you and your family. Schools for your children, hospitals, Islamic law, a good life.
This is one of those books I can add to my arsenal when responding to those adamant non-fiction readers who ask “Why read novels?” A well-written novel helps me understand the world, whether from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy with a drug addict mother in southern Mississippi (Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing) or a kid who seemingly has it all and joins up with extremists.
Speaking of Sing, Unburied, Sing, it’s another one of those rare novels (like Lincoln in the Bardo and Autumn) that lives up to its hype. You can go online and read a million raves so all I’ll do is add my two cents to the acclaim. Jesmyn Ward is a treasure.