Home Boy, By HM Naqvi

 

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The Independent Culture

In the days after the twin towers fell, it was hard for anyone living in New York.

But for non-fundamentalist Pakistanis, it must have been hell. This is the angle explored in H M Naqvi's debut, which won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. The story is narrated by Chuck, a 21-year-old from Karachi who has been in NYC for four years and gains a degree in English literature. He becomes part of an inseparable trio, along with AC, the brother of his mother's friend and an academic rogue, and Jimbo, DJ and son of a Pakistani immigrant to New Jersey.

At the start of the story, life is sweet. Chuck works long hours as a banker but unwinds in the bars of Manhattan, with the drug- and alcohol-fuelled hedonism countered by the stability offered by AC's sister, Jimbo's family and phone calls to his mother. But then the catastrophe of 9/11 occurs. As well as the overt changes, there are more subtle ones. People with dark skins are viewed with suspicion. The land of the free becomes anything but; Chuck loses his job and becomes a cabbie.

Naqvi's debut bursts with energy, despite the author's initial, almost nervy, verbosity. This long-windedness is a distraction, and the stilted tone persists for some time. But once Naqvi forgets the pressure to write a Great Novel and simply gets on with doing so, the story becomes compulsively readable and his writing fluent, evoking the Big Apple in all its rosy, occasionally wormy glory.

Naqvi is particularly good at showing the conflict in the lives of young immigrants; the family expectations of academic success and marriage within the Pakistani community, versus the reality of growing up in a liberal Western society and wanting to fit in. Jimbo's long-term white girlfriend despairs of the way the triumvirate drink, dance and take drugs, yet refuse to introduce girlfriends to their families.

In that fraught time, impulsive acts by those unfortunate enough to "look suspicious" could trigger a bludgeoning official response. The scenes of internment and interrogation are particularly potent and disturbing. Naqvi has written a promising debut: full of verve, entertaining in parts, but also a sobering account of what it's like to feel like a Westerner but not look like one.

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