Terrorist from America just a regular guy

"American Taliban: A Novel," by Pearl Abraham. Random House, $25.

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In this slim novel, Pearl Abraham traces the path of a sweet, upper-middle-class kid from surfer dude to American Taliban.

John Jude Parish is loosely modeled on John Walker Lindh, who was captured after the start of the U.S. fighting in Afghanistan, and whose comfortable background provoked as much a firestorm of anger in this country as did his actions.

But "American Taliban" is clearly a work of the imagination, taking the outlines of a true story and creating something else. Ms. Abraham sets herself a real challenge:

Most readers aren't going to approach this novel with a lot of sympathy for a young man, even an innocent, endearing one, who falls in with people who attacked this country. Yet she does manage to draw a character who evokes sympathy, even as he drifts from inexplicable situations into unconscionable ones.

The author deftly strews John's path to disaster with challenges he could meet,but doesn't. As you read, you think:

"Is this the turning point? Is this? The skateboarding accident that landed John in the hospital? Studying religion at a sharia school rather than at college? Spending a summer in Pakistan? Encountering 12-year-olds in Peshawar who had been blinded at a bomb-making retreat?"

But of course, they're all turning points. And of course, John is blind to their significance and to the chance they offer to take charge of his life's direction.

John's spiritual journey takes some inspiration from Sir Richard Francis Burton, who had "lived the life of a 19th-century adventurer, but he'd also penetrated the ancient wisdom of secret worlds. Which John wanted. Both the physical and spiritual experiences."

The problem is, John isn't the tough-minded adventurer that Burton was. He's so naive and passive that he lets the waves of history carry him to the next place. And whatever happens, happens.

If John had stayed in the kind of life his parents had envisioned -- Brown University, some travel or volunteer work, then a profession -- he probably would have been fine.

That's one of the most interesting questions "American Taliban" raises:

Can parents rear their children in all the right ways for the lives they imagine for the children and yet leave them unprepared when the path veers unpredictably?

In many ways, Bill and Barbara Parish did a great job bringing John up. He's genuinely decent and caring, bright and interested in other cultures and in people who aren't exactly like him.

John's attraction to Islam is real. In Islamabad, he answers the call to prayer and feels that "he was alive."

Because the roles of her parents are such a subtle subtext in the novel, it's easy to see the ending initially as evidence that Ms. Abraham couldn't think of a way to wrap up her story.

But on reflection, the conclusion seems much more like an act that's both unsettling and a gesture of real empathy.

Rhonda Dickey is an Inquirer business editor. Contact her at rdickey@phillynews.com .


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