[Viking; 2012]

Boy Hernandez arrives in America with a dream: he would like to be a world-class fashion designer. It’s a simple dream. He’s talented, he’s driven, and he’s even conniving enough to do it. But we find him thousands of miles from the fashion world, deep within the belly of the beast, sitting in solitary confinement in Guantanamo Bay, equipped with only a useless Koran and a pad on which to write his confession. This five-foot-one, flamboyant Filipino man has been designated a “Non-Enemy Combatant,” a victim of unfortunate, often hilarious, and mind-numbingly idiotic circumstance.

Are we to believe the sequence that leads Boy to his cell, or are they the bold lies of a terrorist? This country has seen too many harebrained decisions by ICE and Homeland Security to think it that unrealistic a situation, and first-time novelist Alex Gilvarry is too smart to make it an issue as the reader falls for the charismatic non-enemy while he navigates the wilds of Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Bronxville on his way to Bryant Park. Gilvarry has created a character whose infectious drive and flawless palate make for a rendition (well, maybe rendition is not the right word here) of the twentysomething in the big city that is fresh, somehow noble, and starkly original.

Boy’s narrative alternates between his time in New York and his stay at Guantanamo, where he is conspicuously out of place (he customizes his orange jumpsuit). Arriving in New York, Boy uses what little connections he has to gain a foothold in the fashion world. He moves into a still-sketchy part of Bushwick (it’s 2002) but immediately lacks the funding to pursue his dream full-time. He dreads failure. Coming across another Filipino immigrant wearing a sign advertising a diner, Boy muses,

Had he come here hoping for something better? Of course he had. What he got served, however, was hard-boiled reality, the city’s ruthlessness, and he had to wear it every day, bearing the brunt over his shoulders as a sign.


Desperation blinds sense as Boy accepts funding from his downstairs neighbor, Ahmed Qureshi, a man who just happens to keep crates of weapons-grade fertilizer next to his Panini maker. As Boy claws closer to Fashion Week, he begins a torturous relationship with a girl from Sarah Lawrence, a knowing composite of the well-heeled liberal arts vixen (of course, she goes on to write a Broadway play about dating a terrorist). Boy is almost too quick a learn on the politics of the NYC dating scene — “Oh, but how I lusted for a body! Still, I knew I needed patience and self-control if I wanted to get together with a girl of Westchester stock.” His relationship goes awry, he begins to pop pills, and amidst a reunion with his former lover, he is hooded and disappeared.

The “memoir” is annotated and prefaced by a fashion writer who followed the career of Boy, someone who, through footnotes, constantly contradicts Boy’s attribution of quotes from famous fashion designers, culled from his memory, his only resource in the cell. How different is Boy’s cell, where he writes his own tragedy, than the studios the young artists of the city keep themselves in? True, only one is by volition, but artists still create to survive, to liberate, to project their own narratives on an unapologetic, cruel politic. If fashion and art and writing all work to win hearts and minds, if not the electorate, then surely the cell should suffice (Guantanamo Archipelago?). But it becomes too much for Boy, who is left a shell of himself at the end of his story, unable to return to the United States, finding solace in a transgender burlesque performer in Manila. The cell is not enough for Boy because he is simply not a writer: he’s a designer. While he is a joy to read, he does it out of utility and despair. One can only transmit from a cell, not shine. There’s dignity in a memoir, but no fame.

The novel begins with a quote by Coco Chanel: “Since everything is in our heads, we had better not lose them.” The head that was so bursting with ideas and hope wasn’t lost; it was taken.

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