In Laila Lalami’s Pulitzer Prize finalist, “The Moor’s Account,” the author, a Los Angeles-based Moroccan immigrant, centered her imagined story on an actual North African slave driven across the New World. Now, with her novel “The Other Americans,” she plunges into the lives of fictional yet convincingly real individuals who, despite their differences in origin and socioeconomic station, all have a whiff of the unwanted hovering about them, and a desperate wish for dignity lodged within them. These are American men and women at whom many a compatriot looks askance.
“Had he suffered? Had he called out for help?” muses Nora Guerraoui of her father, Driss, killed in a hit-and-run just outside the diner he owned. “How long had he lain on the asphalt before his breath ran out?” Nora, a struggling music composer in her late 20s who lives in Oakland, moves back to her hometown in Southern California, where the fatal incident occurred, to try to determine what happened.
Nora’s quest, it turns out, is the artifice through which Lalami embarks on a multicharacter study. The story is related by nine narrators, often with nothing in common besides the small Mojave Desert town they call home, and the varying degrees of “othering” to which they are subjected.
The narrators include Driss himself, who looks back on his life in the period leading up to his death. His chapters and those of his wife, Maryam, who immigrated with him from Morocco years earlier, reveal the extent to which he, in his daughter Nora’s words, “stood out like a tall weed in a clipped hedge.” Nora believes the hit-and-run was deliberate, much like the arson that destroyed the family’s doughnut shop in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Occupying a much more tenuous position in America than the Guerraouis is Efraín, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Having moved to California from Arizona and secured menial work, Efraín wants nothing more than to keep his head down and toil away for pennies. Yet he witnessed the hit-and-run and told his wife about it; now she is adamant that he report the crime to the police, despite his fear of deportation.
Meanwhile, D.C. transplant Erica Coleman, the detective tasked with investigating the incident, worries about how her apparently homophobic husband will react to their pubescent son’s same-sex attraction. She also endures pointed uncooperativeness from her superior at the police station: “It was like he was testing me,” she observes, “trying to see if I could close this case without help from his uniforms.” Why is Coleman given the cold shoulder? Because she’s a woman? An out-of-towner? Or is it because she’s black?
There is an undeniable perfunctoriness to all this; it feels as though Lalami is checking off a list of groups that social justice advocates have designated — however accurately — as disadvantaged. Moreover, she will at times skimp on showing in favor of telling, as with Nora’s rueful recollection, “Growing up in this town, I had long ago learned that the savagery of a man named Mohammed was rarely questioned, but his humanity always had to be proven.”
A character named Jeremy arrests the material’s slouch toward predictability, in part because he’s a white man who has long struggled with his own marginalization. As an adolescent (during which time he was infatuated with his classmate Nora), he had to contend with the shattering impact his mother’s death had on his father; Jeremy’s grades plummeted, and he grew hopelessly overweight. As an adult, though holding down a job as a sheriff’s deputy (Coleman is a colleague), he is an emotionally and physically scarred Iraq War veteran.
Nora and Jeremy, despite or perhaps because of their suffering, kindle a flickering romance. Through this development, Lalami judiciously ensures that “The Other Americans” is propelled by two story motors. We want to find out why Driss was killed, but we’re also keen to see how Nora will choose to live. As it happens, she remains uncertain. Regarding Jeremy, Nora remarks, “I didn’t know why I was spending so much time with him. He wasn’t the sweet kid I knew in high school; he had fought in a brutal war, a war I hated.”
The tale’s conclusion proves at once grim and hopeful. In a technical sense, this requires skilled calibration by the author. Crucially, however, Lalami’s panoptic view is what enables her to strike such a balance at the end, and what establishes the novel’s identity from the beginning. After all, “The Other Americans” might have emerged as a circumscribed account of a crime with one victim and one perpetrator. Instead, Lalami gives us a searching exploration of the lives of several individuals with whom mainstream American society has a vexed relationship.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Malta. His debut novel, “When All Else Fails,” will be published by Interlink Books this spring.
By Laila Lalami
Pantheon. 320 pp. $25.95