Alex Ullmann’s Afghanistan

Alex Ullmann, Afghanistan.
Ticknor & Fields, 312 pages, $19.95.

 

Patrick, the young narrator of Alex Ullmann’s radiant first novel, Afghanistan, would seem to lead a pleasant enough life. A graduate of Brown, he lives in Manhattan, has a rich girlfriend named Irina. and holds down a responsible but not overly taxing editorial job at Glee, a glossy women’s magazine.

Yet he’s discontented. He finds Glee inanely upbeat. He’s decided to wed Irina, but the idea doesn’t thrill him. Fatherless for 10 years, he’s less close these days to his remarried American mom than to Irina’s dying Russian grandfather, whom Patrick often drops in on to atone for fleeing his Swiss dad “in body as well as in spirit” during his final illness. All in all, his present life pales alongside his childhood in Switzerland, where a boy “can traverse whole countries in a day, hearing French in the morning and several German dialects in the afternoon, and still be home before dark.”

The memories preoccupy him. If you grew up in Switzerland, he explains, “it will always seem that you once lived within a story… you will never quite cure yourself of the illusion that the routine exile of your adulthood is, in your case, at least partly a matter of geography.” He’s never shaken off the sense “that my adult life, like my boyhood, would be rich with great and meaningful coincidences, with frequent changes of place, activity, and companions, with danger that was the necessary consequence of my missions and interests, and with knowledge about certain, friends and certain locations that could never be divulged.”

What with all the family dancing and the bright-lights-big-city ambiance – not to mention the sensitive, bookish, obviously autobiographical hero (one is not surprised that Ullmann grew up in Switzerland and worked at Elle) – one might take this, at first blush, for a typical Brat Pack novel. Yet Ullmann is no vain, vapid writing-workshop minimalist. Patrick’s rhapsodies exude passion and self-knowledge, and Ullmann’s long, beautifully rolling sentences lead us along an unbroken line of intuition and insight.

Ultimately, mystery, danger and adventure do re-enter Patrick’s life. He finds them not in war-torn Afghanistan, how-ever-the land of his escapist daydreams – but in Europe, near his boyhood haunts. And he finds them, in a lovely ironic twist, by forsaking the allure of Afghan escapades to help an old schoolmate whom he doesn’t even like – by embracing, in short, adult responsibility.

It’s remarkable how many things here feel exactly right, from the vibrant, lyrical narrative voice to the elegant symbolic connections among fathers and fatherlands. Patrick’s behavior, however illogical, is always credible: his romance with international boundaries and languages, and his mixed feelings about everything from Irina to Switzerland, ring poignantly true; and his culminating epiphany is entirely convincing. Dazzlingly written, impeccably shaped and strangely moving, this story of fathers, sons and the mystery of manhood marks a fresh and luminous debut.

WALL STREET JOURNAL