From Manolo to Gitmo

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry (Viking; 302 pages; $26.95).


In Alex Gilvarry’s first novel From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, his main character, Boyet Hernandez, is accused of terrorism and thrown into Guantánamo Bay.  The kicker is that Boy is a fashion designer from the Philippines who loves America and would never even hurt a fly.  Gilvarry uses irony and absurdity in his timely debut, while at the same time he shows the injustice of detaining and imprisoning many so-called “enemy” combatants who are anything but. Everything leads up to the “Overwhelming Event,” when government officials burst into his apartment in the middle of the night.

For the first 274 pages, Boy presents us a memoir of his time in New York City, the capital of the fashion world, and how he became a prisoner at Gitmo.   Boy, though, assures us he would never “raise a hand in anger against America.”  He loves America, “the golden bastard.”  It is, he surmises, where he is born again, “propelled through the duct of JFK International, out the rotating doors, push, push, dripping a post-U.S. Customs sweat” down his back, and “slithering out” on his feet on a curb in Queens.  Even after he is unfairly imprisoned, Boy still loves America and Americans: “And even after the torment they’ve put me through—tossing me into this little cell in No Man’s Land—would you believe that I still hold America close to my heart?”

Gilvarry gives us wonderful foreshadowing when Boy arrives in New York on September 13, 2002, exactly one year and two days after the 9/11 terrorist attack.  Boy seeks out the Statue of Liberty, that New York landmark symbolic of freedom for all.  His spirits slump when he sees “she was in mourning.”  A “black veil” covers the face of Lady Liberty.  The Statue of Liberty is undergoing restoration at the time of Boy’s arrival and is closed.  Therefore, Boy does not see her in all her glory.  She does not welcome him as he thinks she will.  This does not bode well for Boy.

More than anything in the world, Boy wants to become a great fashion designer.  He admires Coco Chanel and is a little jealous of Philip Tang, his rival back in fashion school in the Philippines who has made quite a name for himself in fashion.  Boy’s problem is that he has little money.  He meets a man in the same building he lives in, Ahmed Qureshi, who tells Boy that he is from Canada.  Qureshi asks Boy to make two suits for him; Qureshi likes the suits so much that he offers to provide Boy the capital he needs to start his own business: (B)oy.  Of course, Boy accepts.  Ultimately, Boy succeeds; his business thrives and anybody who is anyone wants to wear his clothes.

Gilvarry shows us the innocence of Boy, even in a city like New York.  Boy does not question where Qureshi gets his money.  When Qureshi obviously makes things up to explain away his business ventures, Boy accepts.  Boy desperately needs the money, you see, and how Qureshi gets it is of little interest to him.

One day, Boy goes to Qureshi’s.  He needs yet more money because Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman order a new line.  Qureshi has bags and bags of fertilizer in his apartment.  This would certainly tip me off, but not Boy.  It is almost comical how he does not see what is right under his nose.  Boy explains, “Now from the perspective of an innocent man—my perspective—there was nothing too unusual about this.  Ahmed always had things in bulk coming and going.”

Imagine Boy’s surprise when Qureshi is picked up for being an arms dealer!  But Gilvarry takes it even further.  Qureshi tries to save himself.  He is not a terrorist, he is not planning on blowing up America, oh no. Qureshi instead accuses Boy and tells the government that Boy is behind it all.  Qureshi claims Boy is masquerading as a fashion designer so he can blow up everyone during Fashion Week.  That Boy’s publicist is named Ben Laden does not help matters either.

And so it happens–in the middle of the night, government officials come for Boy.  They put a black bag over his head and do not ask questions.  Within just a few days, authorities have Boy in prison in No Man’s Land in Gitmo.  His cries of innocence fall on deaf ears.  His captors are convinced that Boy is lying and is, in fact, the mastermind of a proposed terrorist plot.  There is a lot of hilarity here, especially when Boy’s ex writes a play about him, starring Lou Diamond Phillips.

If the plot sounds absurd to you, that is the point.  The story is absurd and mirrors our recent history when this very thing occurred.  Gilvarry may write with irreverence but he also makes a statement, and a very strong one at that.  His use of satire works well here.  Boy, a diminutive fashion designer from the Philippines, who loves America, a terrorist?  The premise is almost laughable, but, in Gilvarry’s hands, it becomes more than simple comedy.  Boy symbolizes those non-enemy combatants thrown into prison and left there unjustly and without cause.  Gilvarry is not ridiculing the War on Terror; instead, he shows us how foolish our own government is to hunt down people like Boy when real terrorists run around freely.

Because Gilvarry structures his novel as a memoir, the book has all the elements of a real memoir: an introduction, footnotes, and an afterword.  Boy’s voice stops at page 274, and Gil Johannessen’s takes over.  Johannessen is the editor of Boy’s book.  I find I do not like the end of the book.  I miss Boy’s distinctive voice.  I do not know Johannessen; I do not trust him like I trust Boy; I do not connect with him like I connect with Boy.

Johannessen tells the rest of Boy’s story.  I wish Gilvarry had not chosen to end like this.  In the afterword, Boy has changed.  He has returned to Manila and is cross-dressing in an attempt to confuse anyone who might be following him.  Boy has been through a lot, and Gilvarry shows us how paranoid and afraid Boy has become.  He is not the same man who cut off the sleeves of his orange jumpsuit to make it more fashionable.

Although I do not care for the end, it does nothing to dampen my spirit for this timely debut.  Gilvarry proves he is an up-and-coming author with From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant.



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