In her brilliant fourth novel, The Other Americans, Moroccan-American writer Laila Lalami paints an unsparing portrait of the American West, deliberately rejecting the familiar frontier stories of redemptive violence or restorative wilderness.
Instead, Lalami’s West is a place where outcasts and immigrants struggle to co-exist in a desert that sprawls between a national park and a military base—yes, we’re talking about our local high desert. Simultaneously lyrical and accessible, The Other Americans is both an engaging whodunit and a profound meditation on identity and community in the contemporary American West.
The Arabic word for Morocco, “Al-Maghrib,” also means “the West.” American literary expatriates such as Paul Bowles and William Burroughs, who made Morocco their home during the middle of the 20th century, drew mythological connections between Al-Maghrib and the American West, imagining Morocco as a new frontier on which they were countercultural pioneers. Lalami has long been a trenchant critic of the outsized influence these writers have on the American understanding of Morocco. Lalami’s latest novel, a National Book Award finalist, turns the tables on their frontier rhetoric through the story of a Moroccan immigrant family living a few miles down the road from Pioneertown.
The Other Americans is set into motion when Moroccan immigrant Driss Guerraoui dies in a suspicious hit-and-run accident while crossing the highway outside the diner he owns in the town of Yucca Valley. The novel pieces together Driss’ life with interwoven accounts from his family and the diverse cast of desert-dwellers drawn into the investigation of his death.
There are elements of Driss’ story that resonate with a well-known American narrative: An immigrant flees political oppression and arrives in a Western town where he builds his own business, raises a family and comes to identify with his new nation and the land itself. The Other Americans notes that Driss buys his diner from “a pair of homesteaders” who built it on “land that belonged to Chemehuevi Indians.” Otherwise, like so many Westerns, the novel is problematically empty of indigenous history or characters. Driss’ status as an immigrant frontiersman is reinforced by his name, which references Moulay Idriss, the venerated descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, who travelled West from the Arabian Peninsula to found the Kingdom of Morocco.
In his later years, Driss buys a cabin amid the Joshua trees, where he enjoys the solitude of the desert like a Maghrebi Edward Abbey—or so it seems.
As the investigation into the accident unfolds, the Guerraoui family’s hopeful frontier story begins to unravel. The driving force behind the investigation and the narrative is Driss’ daughter Nora, a promising jazz composer struggling with the austere realities of having a creative career in the United States. She returns to Yucca Valley from San Francisco hoping to find out who was responsible for her father’s death, while also questioning where her own story went wrong. Instead of clear answers, she finds the cluttered assemblage of love and loss, adultery and addiction that is revealed when most family histories are probed closely enough.
Throbbing below the dissonant melodies of the Guerraoui family’s story is a bass line of fear engendered by the militarism and virulent anti-Arab racism that hit a peak after Sept. 11, 2001. From ethnic slurs in the school hallway to an unexplained arson at the family’s doughnut shop, the racism associated with the ongoing “war on terror” constantly threatens to overwhelm the Guerraouis’ acceptance into American life. Their very name resonates with the French la guerre—the war.
This tension between the family’s identity as American and its labeling as the “other” in the war on terrorism heightens when Nora reconnects with an old flame from high school, Jeremy, a sheriff’s deputy recently home from a military tour in Iraq. Traumatized by their experiences on either side of the racial “frontier,” Jeremy and Nora bond while confronting the truths that might bring some meaning to Driss’ death—and life—even as they battle a community eager to dismiss the hit-and-run as an accident.
In its poetic meditation on traumas at once personal and political, Lalami’s novel calls to mind the work of another celebrated California writer, Joan Didion. In Didion’s first novel, Run, River, protagonist Lily McClellan concludes a meditation on her pioneer family’s violent history by declaring that “it had above all a history of accidents: of moving on and of accidents.”
Lalami shares Didion’s unsentimental perspective on the West, and the startling conclusion of The Other Americans refuses both self-righteous moralizing and melodramatic redemption. While Didion emphasizes the contingency of Western history, Lalami forces readers to confront the fact that the violence of that history is anything but an accident.
Alex Trimble Young is a scholar of U.S. culture and transnational settler colonialism. He lives in Phoenix, where he teaches at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.
The Other Americans
By Laila Lalami
320 pages, $25.95