One of America’s oldest stories, the immigrant adventure, is magically new in this stunning debut about Algerians in Boston.
Aziz is 24, “a feather of a man,” but strong and resourceful enough to have survived 52 days as a stowaway in the hold of a tanker. Now, despite badly burned feet, he is swimming for dear life in Boston Harbor. In his first days on land he will bounce from some Egyptians, total strangers, to his one hometown contact, Rafik, to the hospital for foot surgery, and back to Rafik’s seedy one-bedroom apartment, shared by the latter’s American girlfriend and three other Algerians. America is a confusing hubbub for Aziz, yet it has the charm of a blank slate, this “pretty new nothing.” The pressure doesn’t let up as Aziz works like a dog to pay off those hospital bills, while navigating around Rafik (a liar who fences stolen merchandise, including bomb-making materials), learning English, and figuring out American body language. While Aziz remains the protagonist, the story fans out to include his kid brother Mourad (the lucky devil won a green card) and another stowaway, the charismatic go-getter Ghazi, whose scruples about Rafik lead him and Aziz to check out his storage locker, a move that will have dire repercussions. Through flashbacks, Adams, a veteran Washington Post reporter, makes brave forays into Algeria and its blood-soaked, byzantine factional strife, so we can understand why Aziz, fending off both the army and a band of murderous Islamists that abducted him, ran from the killing fields. Through it all, Aziz preserves an essential innocence, so it’s bitterly ironic that he becomes the prime suspect of a stumbling FBI task force trying to destroy an alleged terrorist cell. There’ll be no mercy for the innocent, but Rafik and his accomplice will somehow slip through the net.
Adams runs the gamut from farce to horror. If her reach occasionally exceeds her grasp, that detracts only minimally from a fine success.