Alex Gilvarry’s debut novel, From The Memoirs Of A Non-Enemy Combatant, trades in laughs with a wince of recognition in its biting look at one man’s trip into military detention. On the eve of launching his first full couture collection, Boy Hernandez is yanked by TSA agents from his Brooklyn loft-slash-atelier and transported to No Man’s Land among hundreds of detainees. To fend off boredom and establish his innocence, Boy is allowed pen and paper to write the alternate story of his rise to fame before he became known as “the fashion terrorist.” After a few years of toiling away in bridalwear in his native Philippines, Boy storms New York determined to befriend everyone who can get him a spot in the tents at Bryant Park for New York Fashion Week, including a neighbor who pushes him for a major investment in the line, only to later give Boy up to the feds—who aren’t satisfied by protests that he was too busy networking with models to facilitate arms deals with Somali fringe groups.
The threat and shock of unlawful detention as a vehicle for humor is hardly Gilvarry’s invention; he echoes perhaps the best recent example, Torsten Krol’s doofus-on-a-road-trip novel, Callisto. Yet unlike Krol’s Odell Deefus, ignorant of his FBI pursuers while woozily fantasizing about how to catch Condoleezza Rice’s eye, Boy lacks the naïveté his name might suggest. His indignation at being considered an international criminal undeserving of due process—the privations of No Man’s Land bother him less than the assault on his integrity—slows his passage toward a hearing, even as Gilvarry’s exaggerated humor seeks to reassure readers that Boy isn’t really in any danger. (The winking starts early with a fake acknowledgement section in which the designer thanks his PR agent, “Ben Laden—no relation.”)
Boy’s commitment to the truth is underlined, but the lack of specifics in his account of his rise—he alights on a few significant parties, with the actual work shoved offstage—lends ambiguity to his declaration of innocence, propelling Non-Enemy Combatant toward the realization that his defense of willful ignorance doesn’t hold water. That also damages his credibility on the page, but when it becomes clear that someone else is annotating the written account of his detention, the ensuing wrinkle nudges what seems like a circular argument off-track and gives Boy a resolution, though not the rise to international fame he predicted.