Over Memorial day weekend I read Lifted By the Great Nothing by Karim Dimechkie. A coming of age story about young Max Boulos, a Lebanese immigrant in late 20th century New Jersey.
As the novel began, I was impressed by Dimechkie’s honest portrayal of adolescent Max. Max is solitary and awkward and painfully relatable. His social isolation is not due to his status as a foreigner (this is nothing noteworthy in his diverse, east-coast community), but to his acute self-awareness, his motherless-ness and his self-imposed role as caretaker for his father, who needs more caring for than either of them really knows. Rasheed “Reed” Boulos, Max’s dad, has shed his Lebanese culture along with the rest of his past in his attempts to reinvent himself and Max as “Americans.” I loved them both from the start. As the story progresses, however, Dimechkie’s characters become less complex and true and devolve into, well, characters. Reed’s gold-digging, barely post-adolescent girlfriend, Kelly, is never quite believable. Nadine, the mother-earth-sex goddess neighbor is too smart, too sensual, too mature and just too much all around. Even Max and Reed, as they age, become more like outlines of people than people themselves. As a teenager and young adult, Max’s most realistic attributes are his most adolescent attributes. His quick and sullen anger, his impulsiveness and his inability to feel sympathetic towards his father are believable and congruous with the story line and his character. The rest feels sadly false and I found myself falling out of love with his character as he grew into a teenager that had a preternatural awareness of his own depth of emotions and thought, but couldn’t seem to put together a complete sentence in conversation. The characters were artful in their conception, but the delivery waned as the story progressed.
The story… At its heart, Lifted By the Great Nothing is Max’s quest to learn the truth about his mother, a woman whom he knows only as a collection of sometimes contradictory stories as told to him by Reed. His quest spans years and continents and does not tie up neatly, which is just fine by me. About halfway through I began to worry that I had unwittingly stepped into a narrative that would culminate with the September 11th terrorist attacks, but thankfully Dimechkie did not turn a deeply personal story about identity, loss, and love into an emotionally manipulative recollection of a shared tragedy. In fact, the event is almost conspicuous in its absence. Which isn’t to say that the book is free of politics. Armed conflicts in the Middle East are deftly depicted both as a spectator sport for American liberals and as events that shape every aspect of life for the residents of Max’s native Lebanon. Max’s ambivalence as he attempts to make sense of both international and familial politics artfully drives the narrative forward in the latter half of the book.
If you are a crier, this book will likely make you cry. It will also make you think. It won’t make my top ten list this year, but it is an impressive debut novel and I will definitely read his next one.