On top of the great personal tragedy and geopolitical upheaval wrought by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the day’s aftermath also introduced an entirely new lexicon into America’s living rooms.
Once-obscure words such as Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, enemy combatant, Northern Alliance, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mazar-i-Sharif increasingly dominated the news cycle in the months following the day’s tragic events, providing water cooler fluency to even the most casual observer.
Within the nation’s new post-Sept. 11 vocabulary, one of the more curious designations was “American Taliban,” a term assigned to John Walker Lindh, the seemingly wholesome, 20-year-old United States citizen who was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
And it’s just the phenomenon of Lindh’s journey from suburbia to Central Asia that provides the literary underpinnings for Pearl Abraham’s new novel, “American Taliban.” A fictional account of a precocious Washington, D.C., teenager, the story begins on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where protagonist John Jude Parish busies himself surfing and skateboarding in the months after he graduates from high school.
A skateboarding accident ultimately leaves Parish bedridden. With time to kill, he turns to the Internet and chat rooms to satiate his sophomoric interest in Islam and other world religions. After a lengthy online correspondence with a female Arab-American New York University student, Parish decides that his yearlong deferment from Brown would be better spent studying classical Arabic in Brooklyn, rather than catching waves with his friends.
His studies in New York ultimately led him to consider a conversion to Islam. The son of establishment Washington, D.C., parents — his father is a lawyer, his mother a therapist who dabbles in political fundraising — Parish was not raised to be religious, although his one-time hippie parents, to varying degrees, encourage and underwrite his newfound intellectual endeavors.
“He’d have to tell his parents, but he’d decided to tell them about it only after the fact. This would be his decision alone; he would deal with their response to his decision after,” Parish reckons of his conversion midway through the novel. “Besides, he knew [his father] wouldn’t relish the ceremony. He’d question his son’s motivations and integrity, and worry about the future.”
His mother “would hate the idea of her son submitting to anything or anyone, but she’d think of the event as an experience, an opportunity to observe another culture and religion.”
After deferring his Ivy League education another year, Parish eventually lets his curiosity lead him to Pakistan, where a series of decisions later puts him in a Taliban training camp.
“It will be an adventure and he’s been wanting an adventure,” is how the narrator describes Parish’s decision to fight alongside the Taliban. “He is Muslim, and wants to fulfill his duty to Islam. More than anything else, he wants to become. He is here to know and become the age-old way, the way the Buddha became the Buddha, the way Abraham became father to a nation, the way Jacob became Israel, the way Christ became the Savior God.”
Then the United States invades Afghanistan.
What happens next is predictable. Parish goes missing, and his parents are wracked with guilt with what went wrong.
Abraham’s latest book is a fictional contemporary account of middle-class male rebellion in the United States, a broad literary theme that traces its roots back to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other poets and writers more than 50 years ago.
But Abraham’s newest offering is hardly worthy of inclusion in the beatnik cannon. Coming in at 250-plus pages, her plot runs thin throughout and is riddled with clichéd characters that are predictable nearly from the first page. To the local Washington, D.C., reader, however, the novel’s local and regional scenes — Adams Morgan, the Outer Banks, Connecticut Avenue — provide a familiar backdrop to an average story.