Exile on Main Street
A book review by by Tadzio Koelb | The Brooklyn Rail
Go Home is the story of Viraf, who, like author Sohrab Homi Fracis, is an immigrant to America from India’s Parsi community, a group that left Persia a millennium ago to escape religious persecution. When we first meet him in the early ’80s, Viraf is a student slightly at odds with his heritage. He speaks better English than Gujarati, and dates non-Parsi girls—but gets dumped because he isn’t Hindu. Clearly, the complex maze of his cultural allegiances makes “home” a hard place to find. Perhaps to search for it (but mostly to postpone joining his father’s business), he accepts a scholarship at the University of Delaware. A prologue has informed us, however, that Viraf’s future there is to echo his people’s history: he will suffer a beating at the hands of white racists.
Viraf gets an assistantship, learns to call the chemist a drugstore, drops acid with his neighbors Doug and Ali, experiences snow, and tries to feel at home in the U.S., his adventures mirrored in long flashbacks to India. He worries that his family’s thousand-year-old ties to “I-ran” make him a target following the hostage crisis—but in the end, of course, racism isn’t so discerning. When he is assaulted by white people driving a Bronco, the fact is that “The bastards had no idea who they were beating up”: they call him a dago.
These assailants appear unexpectedly (encountered on an empty road) and disappear just as quickly. Unpredictability adds to their menace—no precaution will keep them away. For Viraf, this makes racist violence seem as inescapable and uncontrollable as the snow: embeds it in the landscape. Traumatized and lonely, he starts to see discrimination everywhere, as when Doug suddenly reveals opinions so obtuse that it seem unlikely he would ever go to dinner, let alone take drug-fueled day trips, with a foreigner. Even Ali, with whom Viraf has been successfully flirting, seems to change abruptly.
In tracing Viraf’s ordeal and recovery, Fracis doesn’t differentiate between levels of experience: a word gets the same attention as a blow. At its best, this approach forces the reader to see how the effects of casual racism accrue over time until the smallest slights are as painful as any punch. Sometimes, though, the results are unintentionally comic, as when Viraf reveals to some near-strangers that he’s trying contact lenses. His solemn report, that “There was probably no more than a few seconds of silence as they digested the news. But it felt like a minute,” reads like a parody of Iris Murdoch.
It could also be argued that Viraf protests too much—not at his own treatment, which is disgraceful, but over his shock that such behavior exists. The novel in fact suggests Viraf is unreliable on the subject, although readers not familiar with Indian history will strain to spot the clues: Viraf arrives in the U.S. only months after a Hindu-Muslim street war in Moradabad killed hundreds, but never mentions it. He records the Bhopal chemical disaster (because Union Carbide India Limited was 50.9 percent American-owned) but—inexplicably, for someone concerned with racist violence—overlooks the genocide of Sikhs which occurred the same year. Viraf even indulges in his own casual chauvinism—“Just like a woman, to be difficult”—apparently with no sense of irony.
These are potentially interesting complications, but Go Home struggles to turn them into drama, and—perhaps because it is unwilling to face Viraf’s prejudices head-on —the novel never builds to a second climax matching that anticipated in the prologue. Instead, Viraf leaves America for a summer and comes back; he loses his assistantship; he gets a grant. He records the changes to Doug’s facial hair, mourns his grandmother’s death, and drives in the snow. He goes to a Dead concert, and on that basis later dutifully reports the release of Cherry Garcia (“Creamy chocolate-chip with the odd split-cherry thrown in, packaged in matte red tones”). He again leaves, and again returns. He works in Detroit before moving
Readers anxious to see the woods may ask why they are being shown quite so many trees. It’s a shame, because the bigger picture in this case is important. Together, title and prologue (as well as promotional material) suggest that Go Home is intended as a social novel examining integration in America, a story we desperately need to hear as we descend into the Trumpist experiment of discriminatory government. Unfortunately, Viraf’s one horrible encounter is too small a focal point to unify so large an image.
Indeed, the very structure of this review—stressing one incident among so many—is indicative of Go Home’s biggest problem, which is that by placing such emphasis on a single event, Fracis makes much of the rest of the book feel like a digression. It’s hard to see, for example, how the many paragraphs describing Viraf’s decision to challenge an acquaintance’s call during a tennis match (before ultimately deciding his contact lenses were at fault) tell us about the novel’s ostensible subject. Then again: it was racists who first broke his glasses.