Taylor Antrim Reviews Pearl Abraham’s American Taliban

A new novel, American Taliban, tells the story of a John Walker Lindh-like American teenager who becomes a terrorist. Taylor Antrim explores a mixed effort to understand what drives people to the brink.

How is it possible that Pearl Abraham’s compelling new novel, American Taliban, exists in a category of one? John Walker Lindh’s story has the ingredients of great fiction—a young American converts to Islam, fights for the Taliban, is captured and interrogated, called a traitor by Hillary Clinton, “some misguided Marin County hot-tubber” by George H.W. Bush; the Justice Department’s case against him falls apart but still Lindh gets 20 years in prison. Re-read Jane Mayer’s essential 2003 report for The New Yorker and tell me you’re not gripped all the way to the end.

When he hears Mullah Omar on the radio rallying a Taliban army, he feels like “a wealthy oil-guzzling American, awash in guilt,” and the first time he shoots a rifle while visiting a training camp, he dreams of Richard Burton doing the same thing a century before.

We’ve had a Lindh-themed musical staged in New York and a Steve Earle song (“John Walker’s Blues”), but novelists have let this story alone—until now. Abraham, a professor of writing at Western New England College whose three previous works of fiction explored orthodox Judaism, has written an unsettling novel sure to be argued over by book clubs this spring. Her protagonist is a sort of Lindh-double: John Jude Parish, a teenage surfer-skateboarder, sensitive, studious, and curious about the world. John has been admitted to Brown and has a bright future ahead of him, and yet by the end of the novel, he’s performing target practice at a training camp in northwest Pakistan on the eve of 9/11. That Abraham manages to make his journey comprehensible is a measure of her novel’s generosity, its searching empathy. American Taliban leaves too many questions open and takes a few shortcuts getting to its conclusion, but it’s a timely and important book, urging us to consider our preconceptions about Islamic fundamentalism, and the narrowness and the self-abnegation many of us suppose to be a hallmark of religious devotion.

When we meet John, he has deferred Brown for a year to surf big waves with his friends in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. He’s reading the Tao, Hegel, Whitman, Emerson, a biography of the 19th-century explorer Richard Burton, and waxing philosophical in that fuzzy-headed 18-year-old way (“Think wu-wei. Live as if you’re already dead, unafraid”). His wealthy, left-wing parents support him; he’s got plenty of friends; he’s wide open, full of life; awesome is his favorite term of approbation.

After a skateboarding accident leaves him bedridden with double leg casts, he reads even more, especially on world religion—the subject of his high school senior thesis—and chats online about the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran. One user, a girl named Noor studying at NYU, turns him onto Sufism and Arabic poetry. Off-handedly she suggests he come to Brooklyn and study classical Arabic at a Sharia school around the block from where she lives.

That’s all it takes for a curious-minded 18 year old with permissive parents and time on his hands to pack his bags. Abraham suggests that the first steps toward fundamentalism can be accidental and near-arbitrary. John is yearning for new, mystical experiences—the more exotic the better—and if Noor had been a young, flirty yogini, he might as well have pursued Buddhism.

He enrolls at the Sharia school and begins courting Noor. But neither his Muslim classmates, nor Noor’s father take him seriously because he hasn’t submitted to Islam. So he considers the idea, buying traditional garb, a white shalwar kameez, and poses in front of his mirror. “He looked like a traveler, a great adventurer. Sir John Parish, at your service,” he thinks.

All of this is poignantly convincing—it’s September 2000, a more open-minded time, a time when a summer semester studying in Pakistan could be likened to a semester abroad—or at least that’s what John tells his parents. What he doesn’t tell them is that he’s decided to convert; at the submission ceremony, he imagines himself skateboarding to Mecca, “grinding, circling the Ka’ba.

Fair enough—but how do you get this young skateboarder-scholar-adventurer to a Taliban training camp? Abraham shoehorns a pair of surprising love affairs for John in Pakistan that seem intended to symbolize his complete submission to Islam. Never, however, does he think seriously about jihad or terrorism. When he hears Mullah Omar on the radio rallying a Taliban army, he feels like “a wealthy oil-guzzling American, awash in guilt,” and the first time he shoots a rifle while visiting a training camp, he dreams of Richard Burton doing the same thing a century before. Too easy? Wouldn’t a smart boy like John have at least wrestled with the notion of violence against his own country? John Walker Lindh met Osama Bin Laden; I wondered why Abraham didn’t stage a similar scene, why her American Taliban never hears the words al Qaeda, even as he travels into Afghanistan. Is she suggesting John’s experience is more innocent than Lindh’s was?

Abraham cuts to John’s mother Barbara for the book’s final 50 pages, set during the war in Afghanistan. While Barbara’s torment for her missing son gets under your skin, you can’t help but wish Abraham had stuck with John a little longer. Lindh himself makes an appearance in the story, his picture on TV and in the papers, and Barbara follows the case obsessively, wondering if her son had been caught up in a similar fight against the U.S. The novel’s unwillingness to answer this question feels curiously skittish. Involving and provocative as her book is, Abraham doesn’t fully connect the dots at the end. Perhaps the next Lindh-inspired novel will.

Taylor Antrim is fiction critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel The Headmaster Ritual.