Laleh Khadivi attempts an enormous task in A Good Country: She constructs an unlikely scenario where a young man at an elite prep school in an earthly paradise ends up as a foot soldier in a living hell. In doing so, she faces another daunting challenge: painting beautiful Southern California as repellant and brutal and portraying ISIS-plagued Syria as attractive.
A teenage protagonist, Reza, bridges the gap, pulled between two worlds that are closer than one thinks. Khadivi teaches at the (Jesuit) University of San Francisco, and writes well about three faiths colliding: nature worship, self worship and a generic desire “to know God.”
Khadivi knows California. She stacks mighty heaps of detail, name-dropping relentlessly: albums and musicians, restaurants’ famous dishes, neighborhoods, even vehicles and actual malls, all seasoned with California drug culture. She excels by focusing on the everyday people. Khadivi’s ISIS is not exactly paradise, but it is understandable: It is a new world, a welcoming home for the oppressed and rejected, those looked down upon and worse—from every Western nation. A great “us” and a beautiful “we”: a fresh start, growing together in God.
But it is still a huge stretch. Southern California’s Sodom-and-Gomorrah nihilism and ISIS’ brutal caliphate may each in its own way be a destructive path. But while plenty get swallowed, who volunteers for both? In order to leap over a number of plot holes with any faith, one must also love the main character, Reza, the focal point of every scene and the vehicle for most dialogue. Little happens without him. He is the story, and Khadivi goes deep developing him.
The end result is confusing. If Southern California culture is so repellent as to drive its talented youths into war zones, why spend 250 pages painting a portrait of hip tunes, amazing people, perfect waves, delicious treats and all the best weed?