A 19-year-old would-be mystic skims the surface of jihad, in Abraham’s fourth (The Seventh Beggar, 2005, etc.).
In August 2000, John Jude Parish decides to defer his entrance into Brown University for a year. His parents, Barbara and Bill, former 60s radicals turned Washington, D.C. bourgeois-bohemians, are willing to bankroll his lifestyle of surfing, skateboarding and enlightenment-seeking. While coaching his entourage of “wahines,” female surfers, for East Coast competitions, John has been reading Sufi poetry and delving into Muslim websites. When John sustains several fractures while skateboarding, enforced idleness sends him deeper into his Islamic studies and he resolves to study classical Arabic at a Brooklyn Sharia school. While there, John meets two of his online correspondents, Noor, a beautiful dark-haired waitress, and Khaled, who mediates between John and the Sharia students, who view the newcomer as a religious dilettante. John chastely courts Noor and wears a shalwar kameez he ordered online. The following spring, John accompanies Khaled to Islamia College in Peshawar, Pakistan, where he improves his Arabic and picks up a little Pashto. His anguish upon learning of a wahine’s fatal ride, combined with Peshawar’s stifling July heat, and his conflicted lust for classmate Yusef, drives John to enter what he imagines is a retreat in the cooler mountain air of Kashmir. The retreat is really a training camp for militants, where John acclimates to a Spartan regime of exercise and target practice. Recruited by a small force of extremists that infiltrates Afghanistan to aid the Taliban fighters, John wanly accepts the role of martyr-to-be. After 9/11, the focus shifts to Barbara and Bill, just as “Operation Enduring Freedom” begins. John has been incommunicado for months. When “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh is arrested in Afghanistan, Barbara comes unglued—the parallels between Lindh’s and John’s spiritual trajectories are too unsettling.
Cutting away from John at the critical moment robs the reader of the opportunity to see his ideals and mettle truly tested, leaving only the ideological travelogue of a disengaged slacker.