Maggie Galehouse
Houston Chronicle


American Dervish

By Ayad Akhtar?(Little, Brown and Co., 357 pages, $24.99)


No doubt, American Dervish will offend some readers.

This first novel from Ayad Akhtar — who’s also an actor and a playwright — tells the coming-of-age story of a Pakistani-American boy growing up in Milwaukee in the 1980s.

But it’s also a primer on Islam, a critical look at how the Quran is interpreted by Muslims with radically different agendas.

With varying degrees of success, Akhtar plants this sacred text at the center of a fictional world and steps back to watch the fireworks. The light show is, by turns, beautiful, seductive, dangerous and tedious, depending upon your tastes. Readers partial to high drama may fall in easily with the novel’s talkiness and overall point of view. Others may enjoy it, but pine for a more measured, lyrical story.

Ten-year-old Hayat Shah is part of a Muslim family, but religion is hardly a driving force in his life. Naveed, his father, is a successful doctor and self-made man who drinks, cheats on his wife and thinks religion is for fools. Hayat’s mother, Muneer, who prays to Allah and suffers loudly her husband’s improprieties, has done little to enliven Hayat’s faith.

For Hayat, the Quran is unlocked by a beautiful woman: his mother’s best friend, Mina, who arrives from Pakistan with her young son, Imran, to live with the Shahs.

Mina is single. Her ex-husband sent her a note the day she delivered their son, declaring three times his desire for a divorce. This “triple talaq” was enough to end the marriage under Islamic law.

Mina has come to the United States to distance herself from her ex — who may still claim custody of their child — and her abusive father. During her stay with the Shahs, two vastly different men become her suitors.

With Mina’s encouragement, Hayat makes room for the Quran in his bike-riding, video game-playing life. He and Mina sit together at night and discuss the verses; Hayat wants to impress her by memorizing as much as he can. In turn, she teaches him how to be still, to listen to his thoughts. His spiritual life soars: “I would leave her room feeling lively, easily moved, my heart softened and sweet, my senses heightened.”

But one night, Hayat spies Mina in the bathroom, naked and pleasuring herself. The image of her beautiful body haunts and thrills him, initiating responses in his own body that he doesn’t understand. Love, desire and Islam become bound up together for the impressionable boy, and it’s a heady, toxic mix.

As Hayat’s study of the Quran grows more intense, his father grows annoyed, then angry. And when Mina becomes attached to Nathan Wolfsohn — a Jewish friend and colleague of Naveed’s who is willing to convert for Mina — Hayat grows desperate to tear them apart. After a dramatic scene in a mosque, Hayat seizes a few opportunities to undermine Nathan, setting off a chain of events that cannot be undone.

A dervish, Mina explains to Hayat early on, is “someone who gives up everything for Allah.” Arguably, Akhtar’s novel offers more than one character who qualifies. Framed as a flashback, American Dervish ends with Hayat remembering those tense, tumultuous years. Islam remains a touchstone in his life, no matter how far he has traveled since.

American Dervish is a high-pitched novel. To be sure, all fiction needs drama, but sometimes the action pushes beyond the space it can comfortably claim.

The scene in the mosque, where the congregation turns on Nathan, seems better suited to the stage than the page. Vicious physical attacks, secret telegrams, backyard fires, meddling parents, abusive spouses, attempted suicide, one true love — it’s a soap opera.

More specifically, the novel relies too much on plot — on action — to drive the story. With such volatile subject matter, I wanted more quiet for the characters, more interior narration, more insight into Mina’s internal struggles and Hayat’s growing disillusionment.

That said, Akhtar’s characters are certainly built to carry the weight of melodrama. Hayat, Mina, Naveed, Muneer and Nathan are nuanced beings, as surprising, irritating and endearing as people in the real world.

There’s no pure good or pure evil in Akhtar’s novel, just a whole lot of in between. And no matter how theatrical the story becomes, readers will stay until the end of the show.