Santa Ana Noir

Laila Lalami, The Other Americans

Bloomsbury, 320pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781526606709

reviewed by Stephanie Sy-Quia

It is Joan Didion who writes that driving offers ‘a seductive unconnectedness,’ and Tara Jepsen who claims ‘Driving emphasizes that America is full of people with no sense of civic responsibility.’ Cars are certainly an apt metaphor for the self-interested incarnation of the American Dream which has dominated the public discourse of the United States since the post-war period: individualised, private, separate means of arrival, passing out of the picture and into the sunset – a lone cowboy by another means, but immured from the outer world.

Both Didion and Jepsen were writing about Southern California, which is important because cities such as Los Angeles were the first in the world to be built for the car. The ultimate, waterless West of the United States was not, in the end, won by the gun but by the automobile. It reshaped the landscape to meet its own ends, by building ‘freeways which tangled like yarn,’ as described through the eyes of one of the characters in Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans. And if driving is Southern California’s sine qua non, then a hit-and-run is its most fitting crime. It is an act shocking for how impersonal it is: violent, yes, but cowardly too, and robbed of the perverted romance of hand-to-hand combat. It is the car turned weapon, embodying as it does the decay of the social fabric.

The Other Americans, Lalami’s fourth novel, begins with one such crime. The victim is a man in middle age named Mohammed Driss Guerraoui who fled Casablanca in 1981, during the Years of Lead, with his young family, sponsored for visas by his brother-in-law. (Tellingly, he goes by Driss.) A philosopher from a long line of bakers, he relinquished all hope of academia and bought a doughnut shop in a small Mojave town, sleeping on an inflatable mattress in the utility room for the first year. His daughters ‘learnt the alphabet, learnt the pledge of allegiance’; observe the adults ‘cook elaborate meals, drink mint tea, talk about the king and Ronald Reagan’; and are cast as the Magi in the Christmas play every year. The doughnut shop is arsoned after 9/11, but with the insurance pay out Driss buys a diner with the strivingly all-American name of The Pantry. ‘I think he liked this story,’ his daughter Nora tells us, ‘because it had the easily discernible arc of the American Dream. Immigrant Crosses Ocean, Starts a Business, Becomes a Success.’ The events which follow his murder are narrated at four years’ remove by nine different narrators, alternating by chapter: daughters, wife, detective, policeman, murderer, aiders and abetters.

The setting is the Californian interior, reached via Interstate 5, infamous for the smell of burgers which emanates from the massive industrial cattle farms lining the route. The town is near a Marine base and on its way to a National Park. Its school includes a mix of ‘military kids, church kids, trailer-park kids, hippie kids,’ and a regular feature of the local police briefing is ‘Marci Jamison once again trying to report her Ativan and Percocet stolen so she could get a replacement prescription.’ It is a masterfully rendered milieu – one of piñon pine, yucca and Joshua trees, coyote howls and the hot seasonal wind known as the Santa Ana, which, local sheriff departments have long claimed, always coincides with an annual spike in homicides.

The Guerraouis celebrate Thanksgiving and Eid. They put up Memorial Day decorations. Driss drinks beer; his wife Maryam throws it out. Maryam peddles views picked up on right-wing cable news. Salma is a dentist and the daughter favoured by her mother, her approval ‘a prison you do not wish to escape.’ Nora is a composer trying to make it in the Bay Area. Then there is Jeremy, an old school friend of Nora’s and presently a police officer, who came back from Iraq with a ‘line of black dots’ on his back ‘that still opened from time to time, spitting out shrapnel.’ Much of his energy is expended trying to help fellow ‘army buddy’ Fierro, who has anger management issues. (This occasions some bald swipes at the Veterans’ Association: ‘they wouldn’t offer him the private counselling he wanted and would just send him home with another prescription for Paxil or Zoloft or Wellbutrin.’)

In the father-son duo of Anderson Baker and his son A.J., Lalami expertly portrays two brands of racism. There is the coy, genteel prejudice of the 78-year-old father, ‘native of the Mojave’, who notes that ‘All kinds of people have been coming here. All kinds’ and relies on lazy designations like ‘the Muslim guy.’ The younger A.J., however, is more outright (e.g. ‘Ching-Chong lady’) and uses the turns of phrase which we have come to know signal seduction into the alt-right: for example, after recounting his foiled desire to major in Classics at community college, he adds that ‘the school shut down the department because of the state’s budget cuts. It was a bullshit excuse, of course, because they didn’t cut Asian-American studies or African-American studies or even Chicano studies.’

Even while accommodating the different education levels of each narrator, there are some glaring moments of placeholder prose and plummy, box-fresh cliché. Take, for instance: ‘The sauce tasted familiar and yet different at the same time. I detected paprika, which I knew well enough, but also cumin, parsley, coriander. The meat was tender and came easily off the bone.’ Or: ‘The memory still stunned me: while my father lay on the pavement, his life slipping out of him, I’d been out celebrating with Margo.’

Lalami’s triumph, rather, is in how she excels at portraying the tiny details of postcolonial life and how macro-historical forces manifest themselves day to day. The hit-and-run occurs at the intersection of Highway 62 and Chemehuevi, so named for the Native tribe wiped from the land by the Spanish. To the Spanish, in turn, we owe the name of the San Bernadino Mountains, which are visible from the town. The undocumented Mexican man who witnesses the accident is haunted by the fact that Driss’s last name sounds a lot like his own of Guerrero, which makes sense, as Guerraoui and Guerrero are two variations of the same name, part of a whole group which have travelled around the Mediterranean for various reasons – trade, the Crusades, the expulsion of the Moors – and popped up changed in new countries. How a Mexican ends up with a Spanish name is history.

There is also the fact that Nora peppers her narration with French phrases – ‘au courant,’ ‘comme il faut’ – and that Driss had a French teacher in Casablanca who was Vietnamese. Why would a Vietnamese man teach French in Morocco, and why would there be need of that language in that country? Why had there been need of it in his own country? The answer must not be ignored and cannot be escaped, not even in the Golden State of California. Like the playground insult which does not lose importance when it resurfaces in adulthood – ‘raghead,’ ‘nigger’ – the present can never ‘be untethered from the past.’ The black detective and the Moroccan immigrants know this; the undocumented motel worker knows this; the veterans, for whom everything is written on the body, know this. Those throwing the insults know it too. The ‘Other’ Americans of the title are all the inhabitants of towns just like this one, all over the country, whose tensions we would prefer to ignore in our bicoastal renderings of the nation. Lalami has given us a humane portrait of this timely American drama, and as the novel accelerates towards its conclusion, it is hard not to be gripped by this agile feat of Santa Ana noir.
Stephanie Sy-Quia is a freelance writer and critic based in London.