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High fashion and homeland security clash in a masterful debut.
Boyet Hernandez is a small man with a big American dream when he arrives in New York in 2002, fresh out of design school in Manila. With dubious financing and visions of Fashion Week runways, he sets up shop in a Brooklyn toothpick factory, pursuing his goals with monkish devotion (distractions of a voluptuous undergrad not withstanding). But mere weeks after a high-end retail order promises to catapult his (B)oy label to the big time, there's a knock on the door in the middle of the night: the flamboyant ex-Catholic Boyet is brought to Gitmo, handed a Koran, and locked away indefinitely on suspicion of being linked to a terrorist plot. Now, from his 6' x 8' cell, Boy prepares for the trial of his life with this intimate confession, even as his belief in American justice begins to erode.
With a nod to Junot Diaz and a wink to Gary Shteyngart, Alex Gilvarry's first novel explores some of the most serious issues of our time with dark, eviscerating wit.
A native of Staten Island, Alex Gilvarry has traveled extensively in the Philippines, where his family is from. He's the editor of the Web site Tottenville Review, he has been named a Norman Mailer Fellow, and his writing has appeared in The Paris Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I would not, could not, nor did I ever raise a hand in anger against America. I love America, the golden bastard. It's where I was born again; propelled through the duct of JFK International, out the rotating doors, push, push, dripping a post-U.S. Customs sweat down my back, and slithering out on my feet to a curb in Queens, breathe. Then into a yellow cab, thrown to the masses. Van Wyck, BQE, Brooklyn Bridge, Soho, West Side Highway, Riverside Drive—these are a few of my favorite things!
My story is one of unrequited love. Love for a country so great that it has me welling up inside knowing it could never love me back. And even after the torment they've put me through—tossing me into this little cell in No Man's Land—would you believe that I still hold America close to my heart? Stupid me, Boy Hernandez. Filipino by birth, fashion designer by trade, and terrorist by association.
So here I wait for my Combatant Status Review. Not a college literary journal like the one my ex, Michelle, used to publish her poems in, but a real life tribunal starring me… on trial for war crimes.
It's true that I knew some very bad people. Though it is my opinion that everything must be digested in context. If I am to be released as I have so often demanded, then hard facts contrary to my accuser's egregious mistake must be presented in a clear and chronological fashion. And so my special agent here has given me the chance to write out my true confession (to be used as formal evidence in my tribunal). A pen and legal pad has been provided to me. "Spare no detail. Leave nothing out," were my special agent's instructions. "You can start with your arrival in America."
According to the New York Post, where I once graced the columns of Page Six—my name in bold next to Zac Posen and Stella McCartney—I'm the "Fashion Terrorist." An émigré candyass turned hater of Americans and financier of terror. (My special agent has shown me select headlines from the moment I was extraordinarily rendered here. The papers really think I'm their man.) I was a fiction from the beginning. We see only what we want to see, do we not? And when what we want to see isn't there, we create it. Tah-dah! If I could somehow put all the pieces of my "secret life" together according to what's been said about me in the tabloids, it would go something like this:
Fed up with being the immigrant turd that gets flushed over and over and won't go down, Boy Hernandez finally worked up the nerve to take aim at America. Be it the White House, the Empire State building, or a Boeing 747 out of Newark bound for Tallapoosa, Missouri.
Big ass, bald faced, barbed wire lies.
My first day in America, September 13th, 2002, was the most eye-opening day of my life. I never had any foul intentions, especially toward the city that took me into her unbiased arms, wrapped me up in her warm September skin, and gave me a big maternal smooch. Mwah!
New York City was a utopia.
By contrast there was Manila, my hometown. I grew up on the north end in a wealthy suburb. Tobacco Gardens, corner of Marlboro and Kools (no kidding). Though I didn't come from tobacco money. My parents had a private practice, which made us middle-class at best. Hernandez y Hernandez. Ear, Nose, and Throat. I left the suburbs at seventeen to attend fashion school at FIM. It was there that I began to choke on my own city's mistakes—the crowded motorways, barrios, dirt and smog gave me a bad case of acne and an all-consuming desire to get the hell out of there. And Manila was no place for a serious designer of women's wear. One had to go to New York or London. After graduation, I couldn't imagine staying put. What is it that they say? Home is where you hang yourself.
From the arrival terminal at JFK I directed my cabbie to drive me to the foot of Manhattan, Battery Park. I had studied my maps! I had always dreamed of seeing the Statue of Liberty on my first day in America, no matter how impractical it was from my point of arrival. I wanted it to be a part of my first memory. Just like in the immigrant narratives I had read as a teenager. Oscar de la Renta, Diane Von Furstenberg, etc. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… ." I was being sentimental, I know. But what rebirth is complete without a proper baptism? Seeking out Lady Liberty was my way of christening myself an American, and a New Yorker to boot.
We hit the Van Wyck (pronounced "Wike," said my guidebook), which took us through an unsavory part of Queens. Now, from what I saw of it, Queens was a desolate place, much unlike what I would come to know as the city proper. Panel homes gave way to industrial factories; onramp gave way to onramp. It wasn't until we rolled along the BQE, passing a massive cemetery with thousands of ornate tombstones, that I realized Queens, too, had its own filthy beauty. As my taxi approached a little bridge I couldn't pronounce, there it was on my left. Manhattan. The skyline I had glimpsed from the plane when the captain tipped his wing. The skyline I had seen all my life on television and in films. A skyline that was as much a symbol of my dreams in fashion as it was a symbol of America and its financial prowess. A skyline that called out to me, "Come and get it, sucka!"
My driver took me in. The city beckoned me at every pothole struck. I traced a finger along my map as we went over the Williamsburg Bridge. And then … "Delancey Street," called my driver, "where one comes to pick up drunk young fare." He was a knowing guide, pointing out the neighborhoods as we went. Chinatown, Little Italy, SoHo, City Hall. "First time in the city, I take it?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. I was giddy.
"Just keep your head up and your eyes open," he said. "You'll be alright."
from From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant