“Tragedy is when I cut my finger,’’ Mel Brooks once said. “Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.’’
What is it, then, when you’re kidnapped and shipped to a legal black site and left to rot for half a decade?
This is the question posed by Alex Gilvarry’s lively debut novel, “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant,’’ a book that begins as a comedy, turns into a madcap, and then ends with a sober political backdraft.
The novel borrows some credibility from an explosive tidbit revealed in a recent biography of the designer, Coco Channel: She may have played a role facilitating certain activities for the Nazis in occupied France.
Boyet Hernandez, the hero at the heart of Gilvarry’s whirligig of a book, has a similar charge hanging about his neck. As an aspiring designer in post 9/11 New York City, he accepted financing from some dubious partners.
This novel is meant to be Boyet’s (a.k.a. Boy’s) confession, written out during a period of “detainment’’ at Camp America, (a.k.a. Gitmo). “My story is one of unrequited love,’’ he claims, but love is hardly the story here.
Fame - which very ambitious people confuse with love - is more the topic. Alternating between tales of life at Gitmo and a chronicle of his rise to Fashion Week blockbuster, Boy’s story draws some striking parallels between the way we mythologize stars and the way we look at terrorists.
Both are often outsiders, and both require pathological amounts of attention to fully achieve their status in the public sphere. “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant’’ slices through these tropes, using Boy’s pure improbability as the skewering blade.
Boy is a small, hairless, somewhat effete designer who has panic attacks and a weakness for waspy women. He works in an arena that plays to exoticism but understands none of its political context; “You’re her friend from Asia?’’ asks the first model Boy meets, at a bed-sit in SoHo. “The Philippines,’’ he replies. “That’s the one I always forget,’’ she shoots back.
Gilvarry is a better dialogue spinner than a narrative writer. The conversations here are so hilarious and quotable it’s a bit odd that Gilvarry never gets complete control over Boy’s voice. It is knowing one moment, naive the next. The shtick, in other words, keeps breaking down.
The female characters here are also desperately thin, and not just because so many of them are models. Boy dates a waspy Westchester babe whose most notable scene involves falling asleep while performing a sex act. His next love affair is with a black woman from Manchester who is shuffled off before she even comes vaguely into view.
Here is the main problem with “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant.’’ In order to squeeze in the whole arc of Boy’s rise and fall, the book needs to keep moving.
And yet it also seems to want to move us. It can’t do both, and so in the book’s slightly baggy middle section it does neither.
Good comics always finish with their strongest material, though, and Gilvarry certainly follows this motto. Just when you think “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant’’ is beginning to feel like a weirdly politically charged episode of “Project Runway’’ Gilvarry starts to cleverly twist the narrative.
Boy’s sections at Gitmo begin to take over the tale, and the way Gilvarry shows Boy’s sense of humor being eclipsed by a need to witness is impressive. The last hundred pages of this book are very difficult to stop reading, followed by an equally powerful urge to check whether what this book tells you is possibly true.
You will find in dwindling news reports, websites, and the occasional op-ed piece that yes indeed Camp America is still open for business. The fashion there is still as hideous as ever, but even more appalling is that we treat their premise - that it is OK to suspend habeas corpus indefinitely - as normal. It’s not normal. It’s surreal. It’s a bit like looking at a starving Polish teenager on a catwalk and calling her signs of starvation beauty, Alex Gilvarry points out in this barbed debut. Is that funny? No, it’s a farce.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.’’