American Dervish is about the child of Pakistani immigrants growing up Muslim in 1980s Wisconsin, and you might expect the conflict in such a book to come from without: the anxiety of being different, the corruptions of American culture, the indignities of anti-Muslim intolerance. But in Ayad Akhtar’s heartfelt first novel, the struggles are mostly internal, percolating inside the divided Pakistani community and the muddled brain of the novel’s not entirely sympathetic preteen narrator, Hayat Shah.
Akhtar himself is the son of Pakistani immigrants who settled in Wisconsin, and his knowing take on the complexities of that particular experience feels fresh despite the book’s mishmash of much-told stories: part coming-of-age tale, part fraught family saga, part torn-between-two-worlds drama. Hayat’s father, a secular doctor whose best friend is Jewish, has no patience for his community’s devout establishment ”fools” who worship at the local Islamic center (they’re certainly an unappealing bunch; some of them spout anti-Semitism and abuse their wives). But when Mina, an observant friend of Hayat’s mother, moves in with the family, Hayat finds himself drawn to her in ways he’s not quite old enough to grasp, and her welcome attention inspires a religious fervor in him that turns ugly.
The book’s central tension between secularism and religiosity obviously has broader significance, and Akhtar explores these issues with admirable nuance. Also, perhaps, a bit too much detail. As Hayat gets pulled into serious Islam, the theological specifics start to drag on, especially for those of us not spiritually inclined. But Akhtar’s characters drive a story that’s compelling and believable even at its most alien. American Dervish offers a rich look at a nearby world that many Americans don’t know nearly enough about. B+