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The Vault of Feeling

Shane Barry

A Lonely Note, by Kevin Stevens, Little Island, 256 pp, €12.99, ISBN: 978-1910411315

Donald Trump’s pseudo-campaign for the US presidency has not been short of egregious episodes. This is not a surprise: misogyny, selective xenophobia and needy braggadocio are the candidate’s stock-in-trade. Darker undercurrents rose to the surface in September, however, when an audience member stood up during a Trump town hall meeting in New Hampshire to vent his concerns:

We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. [...] We have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question. When can we get rid of them?

More disturbing than the bile expressed by an individual was the absence of demurral, let alone outrage, among the assembly at large.

Whether the Muslim community can ever be fully accepted into American society is a question tacitly posed by Kevin Stevens in his engaging new novel A Lonely Note. Tariq Mussam is a teenager who is failing to reconcile his heritage as a Baghdad-born Iraqi with his day-to-day existence attending high-school in the American Midwest. His attempts to fit in are thwarted by Facebook taunts and, more seriously, bullying by Brad Jorgensen, a brawny thug with a tattoo of a lightning bolt on his neck. In the opening pages, Jorgensen and his flunkies escalate their persecution. Under the gaze of girls looking down from school’s upper floors, Brad’s gang strips Tariq of his trousers and boxer shorts, leaving their squirming victim naked from the waist down. And so the innocuous locale of Monroe, Wisconsin becomes the scene of a humiliation that evokes Abu Ghraib prison.

To compound matters, the Mussam household is not a trouble-free sanctuary. Tariq’s mother, Zaida, appears to succeed in striking a balance between her Islamic identity and her role as a professional woman who teaches chemistry at the state university. The symbol of this compromise are her colourful hijabs, which are fashionable within the boundaries of tradition. In contrast, Tariq’s father, Malik (known as “Mal” at the hospital where he works as a doctor), struggles to meld his view of the paterfamilias as unquestioned law-giver with the more equivocal role of an American father. Frustrated as much by his indeterminate status in his new home as by his son’s failure to observe Islamic strictures, Malik is prone to lash out physically at his son.

Adrift in the wider world and growing distant from his family, Tariq discovers in music a thread that might lead to an alternative life. At first, clarinet practice at lunchtime seems to be motivated less by interest in the music of George Gershwin and more by a wish to avoid the school cafeteria during Ramadan fast. But Tariq’s appetite is stirred by the choubi, the charged Iraqi folk music favoured by his uncle Rahim (literally a more avuncular figure than his brother, Malik). Already receptive to music that falls well outside the teenage mainstream, Tariq is captivated when he catches a college radio station playing “Impressions” by John Coltrane.

Tariq leaves his house, to which he has retreated after his public shaming, in search of more Coltrane. And it is while exploring the vinyl-heavy record store in the college quarter that he falls into conversation with the owner, a hulking one-armed veteran of the Iraq war who introduces himself as Jamal.

The unlikely friendship that develops between Tariq and Jamal is not based solely on an attitude to music that borders on reverence ‑ an appropriate term considering their devotion to “St Coltrane”, a patron saint of the African Orthodox Church. It is also a bond between outsiders, forged by links to Iraq. Tariq’s upbringing and ethnicity automatically set him apart; Jamal, an African-American man maimed and disillusioned by combat, has set his face against conventional society. He refuses to fund an “immoral government” by reneging on the property taxes owing on his record store. As the book progresses, however, Jamal’s reasoned opposition curdles into something more paranoid and dangerous as symptoms of post-traumatic stress become impossible to ignore. 

While Jamal expands Tariq’s political and artistic understanding, Rachel Katz, a classmate who shares a taste for Middle Eastern music, treads on sensitive ground when she tries to connect with her isolated classmate. His son’s closeness to a Jewish girl sparks Malik’s cultural anti-Semitism. For his part, Tariq’s abstract scruples about keeping himself “pure” are in high tension with the “thumping of his heart” provoked by Rachel’s presence. Yet just as a relationship with Rachel appears possible, Tariq is pulled into a crisis involving both Jamal and his chief tormentor, Jorgensen, which threatens to overshadow any previous misfortune.

With its focus on a young Muslim simultaneously alienated from and mesmerised by American life, Stevens’s novel has similarities with Terrorist, John Updike’s penultimate novel published in 2006. The comparison is facilitated by Stevens’s sharing with Updike a preoccupation with how the senses are continually quickened by the richness of the world: whether it’s the colour wheel of the seasons, the sound of jazz or a whip-poor-will, or even the guilty pleasure of a candy bar consumed during religious fasting.

Ultimately, Stevens’s book sets its own agenda by exploring a particular set of characters in a particular context. Disavowing the notion that religion or race presumes an associated mentality, the novel allows its protagonists to respond as individuals to life’s great imperatives: family, friendship, love, sex, and, for some, art.

Towards the end of A Lonely Note, the act of listening to great music in company is described as creating a “vault of feeling”. This is a structure under which anyone can take shelter.

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