In The Other Americans, Laila Lalami reveals what unites and divides us

By David Canfield

Late on a spring night in the Mojave’s Yucca Valley, Driss Guerraoui is killed in a brutal hit-and-run. We meet the man as a helpless victim, but over the course of The Other Americans, he emerges with complexity: a loving grandfather, a flawed husband, a diner operator, a philosophy scholar, a native of Morocco. His death sets into motion a reckoning over 9/11’s long shadow for Muslim Americans, and the treacherous place immigrants occupy in the current climate.

Driss’ daughter Nora returns to the desert from the Bay Area, where she works as a struggling jazz musician, and quickly falls back into a tense rhythm with her disapproving mother, Maryam, and her older sister, Salma. She’s certain her father was murdered: “To believe that my father’s death was just an unfortunate accident meant that I would have to forget everything else I knew about my hometown.” Insults like “Taliban” and “raghead” defaced Nora’s locker when she was a child, haunting her through hallways; shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the doughnut shop her parents bought after first settling in the U.S. was burned to the ground — violence that torched her family’s American dream.

Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami (The Moor’s Account) artfully infuses her crime saga with tremendous empathy. She allows a broad range of locals to tell their own stories in (predominantly) first-person accounts: Jeremy, a cop and military veteran who crushed on Nora when they were younger; Efraín, an undocumented minimum-wage worker who bore witness to the hit-and-run; Detective Coleman, a weary D.C. transplant who’s assigned to the case; and more. The chapters intimately detail the way these characters walk through and relate to the world. They function symphonically, enhancing The Other Americans’ tapestry of alienation.

In The Other Americans, crime breeds clarity. Against her remote California landscape — rendered with heat and intrigue and a sense of yearning displacement — Lalami captures various characters’ experience of otherness, however warped or ugly. There are elements of self-deception and omission to their narrations, but as the plot tightens, these people tell us who they really are. Coleman, a black woman adjusting to the quieter menace of small-town life, works diligently on the Guerraoui family’s behalf. Efraín’s conscience eats him alive as he decides not to come forward, for fear of being reported. Bowling alley operator Anderson and his son, A.J., community mainstays (and white men) who’ve felt punished by the world’s unforgiving nature, turn resentful toward the changes infiltrating their town.

Lalami’s scrupulous construction lends The Other Americans a page-turning excitement. Some characters only pop in when most convenient, their personal dilemmas relatively slight — contributions, and little more, to the book’s larger arguments. But each gets a moment that strikes like a thunderbolt: electric, resounding, and precisely delivered. When Coleman is called the N-word near the end of the novel, Lalami brings the detective’s pain to the fore with eloquent, visceral rage: “I was alone. And I was nine years old again. Or eleven. Or fourteen. It didn’t matter, it hurt the same every time.”

Nora comes to these realizations throughout The Other Americans, reconsidering what binds her to what she’s distanced herself from: her mother, her sister, the town she grew up in. Driven as it may be by mystery and unanswered questions, and stuffed as it is with familiar family dramas, the novel fundamentally focuses on the intricate dynamics of life in the here and now. It provides a nuanced response to the whiff of malaise in the air, the animus taking over the American day-to-day.

The author seems uncomfortable, in her rushed final act, with wrapping the book up. The conclusion reads unusually, tentatively hopeful. Let it settle, though, and it feels, if not satisfying, at least appropriate. In a novel that knows hate but believes in people — that ultimate contradiction — a little optimism goes a long way. A-