From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant
By Alex Gilvarry
All too frequently in novels of injustice, victims become martyrs of absolute innocence, while historically specific oppressors become facile, storybook villains. Alex Gilvarry’s wry, biting novel From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant bucks the trend gleefully; the book is radical in its refusal to be reverential and sympathetic in the rather daring way it makes its protagonist relatable.
Structured as the autobiography of a prisoner—yes, of a “non-enemy combatant” interred at Guantanamo—Memoirs has one of the more engaging narrators of recent memory, a pissy and articulate fashion designer named Boy who is innocent of all charges but views his imprisonment with the same amount of ire that he directs at an ex who based a play on their relationship. Make no mistake: should I ever be thrown in the slammer, the book I wring out of the experience will similarly be filled with more self-pity than noble pleas for justice.
The extended flashback relating how Boy reached Gitmo is interrupted with descriptions of the hellish conditions of his internment—a wildly disproportionate version of the comeuppance his entitlement seems to demand. The structure subtly implies he’s being punished for being a dick as much as for the fact that a business backer of his has, unbeknownst to him, terrorist connections. This is a very funny book (especially the deadpan footnotes that correct Boy’s inaccuracies and ramblings), which makes it far more effective than works granting victims of injustice the one attribute of saintliness. Memoirs shows a full person in the cage, warts best of all.
Boy’s voice is so engaging—from his insights into New York’s fashion world and the immigrant experience to the more traumatic experiences forming the core of the book—that the book nearly collapses with an epilogue written from the point of view of a journalist. That change in tone, to a subdued and respectful voice, is necessary to give the book some closure, but it erases an awful lot of the goodwill that was constructed so carefully before it.