Pearl Abraham's fourth novel, American Taliban, is the story of an American family riven by the disappearance of a young man, John Jude Parish, into the ranks of the Taliban weeks before 9/11. Though glancingly based on the life of John Walker Lindh, the novel differs in particulars: The eighteen-year-old Parish is a popular, intellectually curious character rather than a troubled teenager, and his journey from Washington, DC, to Afghanistan feels less like a radical quest and more like a pilgrimage that ends at the wrong shrine.
Setting the story in the year 2000, Abraham reminds us that Islam—prior to becoming an unfair synonym for terrorism—was just another exotic ingredient in the American melting pot. Parish thinks of Muhammad in the same breath as "Emerson and Whitman and Dylan," and neither his parents nor his friends find anything disturbing about the thirst for knowledge that drives him first to Brooklyn's Islamic Boerum Hill and then to Pakistan in the gap year before starting college at Brown.
Unfortunately, the novel is stymied by a glut of information. Abraham identifies so strongly with what Parish is studying—the Koran, the exhortations of chat-room fanatics, the newspaper reports—that she never explains why he fixates on Islam rather than another immersive subculture.
So [Parish] Googles the word Islam, the fastest-growing religion of the twenty-first century. One in five people in the world, he reads, considers himself Muslim. Fewer than 15 percent of Muslims are Arabs. The majority of the populations in fifty-one countries are Islamic. There are between 1.4 and 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and this number is increasing at a rate of 2.9 percent. Which inspires him.
Is Parish inspired by the Islamic rate of proselytization? While the real John Walker Lindh had at least the Freudian alibis of a broken family and a gay father in his background, the most Abraham can muster up for Parish is a cybercrush on a cute Arab-American girl and a skateboarding accident that forces him to swap his physical pursuits for scholarly ones. Later we are told that Parish has a deep interest in the Orientalist explorer Richard Burton, but this attempt at providing a credible catalyst falls short: Parish's vitality as a protagonist has long been subsumed beneath downloadable facts.
It is understandably hard for any writer to resist the excellent material on hand—John Updike and Jonathan Safran Foer fell prey to a similar impulse in their 9/11 novels—and it's to Abraham's credit that she doesn't sensationalize the story. Unfortunately, the result is an obsequious regard for the feelings of every community described: The novel is devoid of even vaguely threatening characters who may challenge Parish's bookish assumptions. "You are new to Brooklyn and new to the Arabic language and culture, both of which are old, laden with history and tradition," the father of Parish's crush says in the sort of wooden, hospitable tones that Abraham favors for Muslims in American Taliban. Parish remains inscrutable precisely because he is never forced to act out or defend himself—in DC, Brooklyn, or Pakistan. This leaves the reader in the perverse position of waiting for the game-changer of 9/11 to reveal Parish's true personality.
Abraham abruptly cuts out of Parish's story just as he joins the Taliban: We never get to see how his status as an American is shaken up by the terrorist attack. The author turns, instead, to Parish's parents, who are emotionally punished for their permissiveness by the mounting realization that their son might be in danger if America retaliates against Afghanistan. Such a scenario would be extremely moving and surreal—how many white Americans were this well acquainted with Islam before 9/11?—if the Parish family were not so clearly set up for a downfall. Bill and Barbara are cardboard cutouts of liberal, indulgent parents—nearly everything we know about them comes from their naive political opinions—and they respond exactly as you'd expect: with disbelief and grief. Instead of truly questioning their child-rearing decisions—à la the Levovs in Philip Roth's fiery treatment of domestic terrorism, American Pastoral—they read newspapers, obsess over the freshly captured Lindh (who appears briefly in the novel), and rage against Bush. Their aggression in the face of their private failure of intelligence is so remarkably similar to that of the government they vehemently oppose that it becomes yet another political cliché.
Such predictability reduces the strange story of an American boy who joins the Taliban to the familiar truism that 9/11 made victims of us all. This is a shame, because Parish's descent into the pits of radical Islam—like that of Lindh from California and, more recently, Omar Hammami from Alabama—is anything but inevitable. He has kind parents and supportive friends and is popular with women. That he ends up in the Taliban suggests he is an extraordinary person, not simply, as Abraham implies, a victim of extraordinary facts.
Karan Mahajan, a former bureaucrat, is the author of the novel Family Planning (Harper Perennial, 2008).