From its first sentence, “The Other Americans,” the fourth work of fiction from Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami, grabs the reader with its directness and urgency.
“My father was killed on a spring night four years ago, while I sat in the corner booth of a new bistro in Oakland,” says young classical music composer Nora Guerraoui. Her father was an immigrant Moroccan restaurateur, Driss Guerraoui, and he was the victim of a hit-and-run driver right outside his diner. Knowing what she knows about the racism of her hometown, she could not accept that his death was accidental.
In short chapters that accumulate like episodes of a true crime podcast, a tightening circle of characters share their perspectives.
There is Jeremy Gorecki, a boy who grew up with Nora in their small town in the Mojave Desert and now, after his service in Iraq, works as a cop. Next comes Efraín Aceves, an illegal worker with a family who witnessed the accident while riding home on his bike, but was afraid to get involved with the police.
Also contributing are the voices of Nora’s mother, Maryam, unhappy since she and her husband fled Casablanca in 1981; her sister, Salma, a successful dentist in practice with her husband; the cop on the case, Erica Coleman, relatively new to this insular town; the man who runs the bowling alley next door and his son; and, quite wonderfully, the dead man himself.
One of the reasons the novel recalls an audio podcast is because each of these voices is so clear. But as their testimonies accumulate, much more develops than the solution to the mystery, which is nearly overshadowed by the novel’s other accomplishments. Just as much as it is a mystery, it is a social novel about race and class, it is a love story, and it is an immigrant family drama.
In each of these realms, there are small things and subplots to appreciate. For example, Efraín knows the victim’s name is Guerraoui, but it sounds to him like Guerrero, and before long he believes he is being haunted by an angry ghost named Guerrero, determined to torment him until he goes to the police.
Guerrero trips him, makes him late, messes up his steam-cleaning equipment. When his daughter is in a play at the local elementary school, his pleasure in seeing her name on the program is ruined by not one but two Guerraouis, the dead man’s grandchildren. On top of that, there are some women in the front row arguing so loudly that it destroys the mood — if he only knew these were Guerraouis, too!
The ending of a book like this can fail in many ways. Lalami avoids all of the pitfalls, answering most but not all of the questions in the reader’s mind, and quietly delivering the only answer to the terrible divisions, prejudices and misunderstandings that fuel her plot. “All we needed to do was keep talking.”
Marion Winik, a board member of the National Book Critics Circle, is the author of “The Baltimore Book of the Dead” and host of the Weekly Reader podcast.
The Other Americans
By: Laila Lalami.
Publisher: Pantheon, 320 pages, $25.95.
Event: Wordplay festival, downtown Minneapolis, May 11-12.