By Laila Lalami

Algonquin. 195 pp. $21.95

We Americans may well inhabit the wealthiest, most powerful and most coveted country in the world. It's easy to think of this nation as the only one beleaguered by immigrants coming from countries whose names and locations we didn't really catch (where is Honduras in relation to Belize anyway? Or Laos to Cambodia?). Geographically speaking, we think of ourselves as the Queen of the Cosmic Prom, and that everyone wants a piece of our glamorous action.

"Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits," a bracing and beautiful little novel by Laila Lalami, reminds us that for many people on Earth, we're not even on the radar. Murad, one of four Moroccans at the center of this story, only wants to cross the Strait of Gibraltar and land in Spain, to find what he sincerely believes will be a shining life, full of opportunities for education, freedom, self-improvement and wealth:

"Fourteen kilometers. Murad has pondered that number hundreds of times in the last year, trying to decide whether the risk was worth it. . . . He spent hours thinking about what he would do once he was on the other side, imagining the job, the car, the house. Other days he could think only about the coast guards, the ice-cold water, the money he'd have to borrow, and he wondered how fourteen kilometers could separate not just two countries but two universes." Murad turns out to be one of 30 desperate people crammed into an inflatable boat for this 14-kilometer trip. One of his fellow voyagers is a sulky adolescent girl named Faten, who insists on wearing her hijab, or Islamic veil. (How dumb can she be, Murad muses, flaunting her religion like that? She'll be sure to get caught.) There's Halima, a battered wife with three children who's worked as a janitor in Casablanca. And Aziz, a sweet young husband who has steeled himself to leave his lovely young wife for a time: With all the naivete of the truly good-hearted, he's sure that Spain will grant them both a good life with a rosy future. And we see glimpses of how Murad spent his days in his home country -- trying to sell his skills as a guide to boneheaded Americans, telling stories about the writer Paul Bowles to tourists who don't even know who he was.

Of course, the smuggler double-crosses these luckless passengers in the inflatable boat, forcing them into the water way too far from the elusive Spanish shore. Some of the 30 make it to land. Others don't. Others are deported back to Morocco. Their futures are still entwined with their pasts, however they end up. Halima, the battered wife, who has repeatedly scorned her mother's dependence on sorcerers, finds herself in a walk of life that relies heavily on magic. Faten, the self-absorbed religious zealot, learns some hard lessons that reveal her own shortcomings, those of her religion and the hypocrisy of some of the people who practice it. Aziz "succeeds"; he was the promising one of the four, but in succeeding, he loses all that he holds most dear. And Murad, the born storyteller, finds a different story to tell.

Notice I didn't say which -- if any -- of these four make it to Spain, their promised land. In a sense, the author suggests, it doesn't much matter.

The Moroccans of whom Lalami writes are the descendants of colonized peoples. It goes without saying that the colonials took everything they could from this unfortunate, plundered country before they were pushed back home. And now there's nothing for ordinary people to do in Morocco, according to this powerful narrative. People grow crops, sell them, cook them, eat them. They drive cabs and cut each other's hair. They do each other's laundry. They sell stuff in bazaars. They try to live on legends: Paul Bowles lived here! But there's not enough of anything -- not enough hope, not enough money, not enough jobs. All this is about far more than crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits" is about the downside of globalization and what happens to those who live far down the human food chain. They lose not only their jobs but also their customs, relatives, families, friends. And that's when they get just a little bit mad.

But this little novel is not worker-lit. It does no more than tell the stories of four engaging people we wouldn't otherwise know. The author accomplishes it with supreme grace and style.

Sunday in Book World

* Scott Turow's latest novel plumbs the depths of war.

* How the Ivy League kept "undesirable" students out.

* Teens in Charles Burns's graphic novel turn into monsters.

* Octavia Butler's vampires love their human "volunteers."

* And more books that go bump in the night.