The hit-and-run death of Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant in Yucca Valley, begins Laila Lalami’s fourth novel, “The Other Americans.” Until the incident, the Guerraouis live a sensible but difficult life, sending their daughters to school with zaalouk in place of PB&J, celebrating “holidays not listed on the school calendar,” learning the alphabet, the pledge of allegiance, and “how to stay out of the way of bullies.” They run a successful business; their cafe, The Pantry, sits along a road well traveled by California desert visitors, generating steady revenue — even lovers of nature run on coffee and doughnuts like the rest of America. The business across the street, a bowling ally owned by a man named Anderson Baker, is not so fortunate; devotees of destinations like nearby Joshua Tree generally being uninclined to spend time flinging balls at bowling pins.
On one level, the Guerraouis, their modest accomplishments, and even more modest dreams, serve as a perfect locus for the troubles that ail a nation, particularly post-9/11. Change has come to America, and there are always brown people to blame. On another, this explanation is simplistic in its calculus. We do not read fiction to wring our hands at yet another crisis precipitated by racism but to discover some larger truth. For that we need breadth and depth. Lalami’s novel, lacking focus, falters on both counts.
While his wife, Maryam, after orchestrating their flight to America, becomes a devout Muslim yearning for home, the reluctant émigré, Driss, disavows his youthful fervor for the “mathematical elegance” of Islam and the unexamined faith of ferocious devotees at a Riverside mosque. He turns, instead, to an appreciation of the landscape around him, even buying himself a cabin in Joshua Tree. “It was a Saturday,” he likes to tell his daughters, Nora Guerraoui, a jazz composer, and Salma, a dental professional, recounting his flight from Morocco, prompting Nora to observe that this fits what she believes to be “the easily discernible arc of the American Dream.” In private he gazes at the San Bernardino Mountains, marveling at how “hard the believers make it to get into heaven . . . when they have all this right here.”
Driss is a character whose interiority and actions could easily carry a novel. Unfortunately, he is lost to us early on. The baton passes to a long cast list. There is Jeremy Gorecki, once an overweight depressive musician, now a buff rehabilitated yet and compassionate sheriff’s deputy, who becomes Nora’s love interest; Efraín is a witness to the accident, who fears deportation and god in equal parts; Coleman, a black female detective transplanted from Washington, D.C., grappling with racism and the possible non-heterosexuality of her stepson; mean-streaked Baker and his son, A.J., formerly a classicist and lover of show dogs, now an embittered failed entrepreneur; and Fierro, an hyper-masculine former vet who served in Iraq with Gorecki. There is a scene toward the end of the novel involving signs meant to hang over different businesses. It is an apt image for a novel whose characters feel as if they march onto the page, signs above their heads, listing their respective bouquet of difficulties.
Despite moments when Lalami draws deft connections between secular and religious beliefs, the novel contains unfortunate missteps. Each character speaks in the first person in alternating chapters in the manner of witnesses giving testimony, a clever technique with great potential, yet with little to distinguish one voice from the other, their differences merge into a curious homogeneity. In a singular, moment of lucidity, Salma, the tightly-wound dentist, delivers a soliloquy of sorts on the travails of the first-born of a first-generation immigrant from the moment of arrival on the tarmac to her addiction to painkillers; at an artist’s colony, Nora experiences every microaggression known to people of color; and Gorecki manages in a closing chapter to allude to both Baldwin and Neruda as being part of who Nora is.
In Lalami’s earlier works, she examined illegal migration (“Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits’’), the lure of Islamic fundamentalism (“Secret Son’’), and conquest and slavery (“The Moor’s Account,’’ a Pulitzer finalist and long-listed for the Booker). She has an abundance of talent and a dedication to the big questions of our time. Yet the trouble for any writer, no matter how gifted, who seeks to produce an explanatory novel about the myriad ills of a sick nation, is that characters risk becoming clichés. We can blame the nature of the beast: A broken and battered America requires perhaps a confluence of writers to bring it into the light, becoming visible in the conversation between books, not contained in a single one. The other Americans, whoever they are, strenuously resist the cross-hairs of this particular gaze.
By Laila Lalami
Pantheon, 320 pp., $25.95
Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan and American writer whose work includes the novel “On Sal Mal Lane,’’ and the anthology “Indivisible: Global Leaders on Shared Security.