The American Dream has always been an elusive prize at rainbow’s end. In the 1920s, artists and writers fled to Europe in quests for worldliness. The Beats grooved on beatific dreams or trailed an Eastern guru.
John Wray’s novel “Godsend” gives the pattern the strangest turn yet. Alienated from their hometown of Santa Rosa, Dexter’s and Aden’s dreams are inspired by the Islamic faith. Once transplanted near the Afghan borders, they enroll in madrassas, the religious classes favored by the Taliban, where they ponder and memorize suras (Quran chapters). But their paths soon diverge. Dexter is drawn to militancy, Aden to a new identity. Why so radical? Why not the Peace Corps or study abroad?
One critic has deemed Aden a blank, but I would prefer an empty vessel. She is in flight from an alcoholic mother and an academic father who has moved on. As a child, she had joined him on his Mideast researches and had been captivated by the exotic terrain.
But when she assumes the name Suleyman, readers are cued to the author’s key source: the “American Taliban” account of youthful idealist John Walker Lindh, who spurned his humdrum existence in favor of Islamic adventures. When news of 9/11 deflates his fervor, he returns home only to be tried and sentenced. His adopted Arabic name was Suleyman, same as Aden’s. But the author has injected a wild card into this fictional scenario: Aden has cut her hair and swaddled her breasts to pass as a man.
A new dynamic and elements of suspense are injected that would overtake the narrative had the author not mostly kept it under wraps. As the Muslim leaders are drawn to the intriguing, ostensibly male American, there are prospects for a Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identity/gender. But this entertaining option is bypassed. After Dexter meets a dark fate, a more ambiguous future awaits Aden—her new identity, found? Or imposed? By now we have strayed far from any American Dream, and for these two there will be no turning back.