Two immigrant outsiders hang out in cafes near Harvard. One vents, the other listens, in this third novel from the Egyptian-born Aciman (Eight White Nights, 2010, etc.).
With the students gone, Cambridge in August is a sleepy place. But the nameless narrator does not have the wherewithal to leave town in 1977. He’s a graduate, sweating over his dissertation on 17th-century literature, with last-chance exams looming. The 26-year-old is scraping by on library work and tutoring French. His background is sketchy: He’s a Jew from Alexandria, Egypt by way of Paris; these autobiographical details are fleshed out in Aciman’s well-received 1994 memoir Out of Egypt. He’s drawn to the tiny Café Algiers by its French-Arab flavor and finds it dominated by a new arrival, a beret-wearing guy in his 30s who holds forth in French about white Americans’ addiction to “all things jumbo and ersatz.” His rapid-fire delivery has earned him the nickname Kalaj, short for Kalashnikov. He’s a Berber from a Mediterranean town in Tunisia, driving a cab while applying for a green card; that bid is in jeopardy because his American wife is divorcing him. Kalaj has an immediate appeal for the narrator (he is his id, his unexpressed anger), and the two become friends. The purpose of Kalaj’s rants is to attract women; they are also a defense mechanism, should America reject him. His success with the ladies rubs off on the narrator. In short order, he beds a very rich Persian graduate student, a Romanian baby sitter and another rich graduate student, a white American, plus his always available neighbor Linda. These flings might have been more credible if Aciman had not placed their lovemaking off limits. As for Kalaj, this should have been his story, but he has not been developed into a picaresque hero, which is why Aciman shifts our attention back to his colorless narrator.
A rather modest addition to immigrant experience literature.