Lorraine Adams’s great, gutsy first novel, Harbor, homes in on the most demonized population in America: dodgy young Islamic men living in big East Coast cities. A haphazard group of Algerians come and go from a shabby communal apartment near a Boston airport. Most are operating on the fringes of the law, and some, it becomes increasingly clear, far outside it. Who, this cool, compassionate novel asks, are these people?
As the book begins, Aziz, a 24-year-old Algerian stowaway fleeing the political violence of his homeland, stands on the deck of a tanker in Boston harbor, shivering and nearly blinded by the sun after 52 days in the hold. He dives into the icy water, swims ashore, and launches himself on the city, clad in rags, bleeding, and unable to communicate. For the first two chapters, we see the world through Aziz’s eyes and, like him, we have no idea where this desperate journey will end.
Then Aziz makes contact with an old acquaintance from Algeria, the slippery, charming Rafik, and almost instantly we’re immersed in a boisterous, populous, and perceptive social novel. Aziz moves into Rafik’s apartment, decorated with Madonna posters and photographs of the Tour de France. Rafik introduces Aziz to his chubby American girlfriend, Heather, and to his business partner, the tricky, misogynistic Kamal. He takes Aziz to nightclubs to ogle women, plies him with drinks, and initiates him in the world of insurance fraud.
Aziz, the classic innocent abroad, soon finds himself at the center of a fluid group of Algerian immigrants, each pursuing different agendas. Aziz’s brother Mourad turns up bearing a precious green card, lands a good job, and begins acquiring the trappings of a bourgeois lifestyle. Educated, charismatic Ghazi, an architect by training, arrives shortly thereafter, a stowaway like Aziz. But America turns out to be no paradise for Ghazi, who washes dishes at a Mexican restaurant and begins suffering from depression, which he alleviates by watching Al Pacino movies and reading the Koran.
Adams offers shifting perspectives on these complex characters. Aziz sees Heather as the pampered daughter of a fabled ''rich father.'' Later, we get a deeper, more rounded portrait of a sweet, malleable girl who unexpectedly falls in love with homely, serious Mourad. And toward the book’s end, we glimpse Heather from the viewpoint of a jaded FBI agent: ''She’s a kid. Twenty-two, and not real smart, and a whiny voice...''
The late appearance of the FBI pulls the loose, generous story together. We’ve been inside this admittedly suspicious-looking group of mostly Muslim men, and now we draw back and observe the whole with all its many moving human parts and misunderstandings. The term ''terrorist cell'' has a chilly, clinical ring that keeps it divorced from the ambiguous, messy everyday lives we all live. In this outstanding novel, Adams decisively reestablishes the connection.