What would lead an 18-year-old from an upper-middle-class, secular background to embrace a life of religious orthodoxy and political radicalism? Pearl Abraham’s new novel American Taliban asks just this question. Though there are obvious parallels to the life of John Walker Lindh, Abraham does more than merely borrow the facts. Her thoughtful approach to the characters and honest appraisal of the events make what could have been merely provocative into a challenging and effective novel.
Supported by open-minded—if indulgent—parents, John Jude Parrish is spending a carefree gap year surfing and skateboarding in the Outer Banks and reading extensively. His widely cast intellectual net encompasses Dylan, Rumi, the Tao and Walt Whitman, and he is eager to share ideas with new friends in online chat rooms. When a skateboarding accident puts him out of commission, he throws his considerable energies into learning Sufi poetry and decides to pursue an Arabic language program in Brooklyn. There he becomes more interested in Islam, and when a fellow student suggests he go abroad for further study, John travels to Pakistan. The immersion into Muslim culture cements his decision to convert to Islam.
One of John’s inspirations is the great 19th-century traveler-scholar Richard Burton, and his plan is to create a similarly Romantic expedition for himself. But the 21st century, with the attacks of September 11 a mere month away, proves an inhospitable time for this kind of excursion.
Although each action leads John closer to a treasonous radicalism, the novel clearly illustrates that the individual steps of his spiritual and intellectual journey are perfectly plausible. John’s personal quest forces him to open up to new ideas about religion and sexuality as well as to acknowledge his desire to be part of “a larger undefinable truth” while still retaining his individuality. But even Abraham’s considerable skill as a novelist does not fully illuminate John’s ultimate decision to move from philosopher to extremist.
The final segment of American Taliban takes place in the fall of 2001. John has disappeared, travel to Pakistan has been halted, and John’s mother is obsessed with John Walker Lindh, the young American found fighting alongside the Taliban. The abrupt shift in the conclusion feels rushed and almost derails the balanced tone and well-considered plot. But a novel like this encourages the reader to pay attention to the world and to ponder complex issues, and for that, despite its flaws, American Taliban should be a must-read for anyone interested in current events.