Lifted by the Great Nothing
Karim Dimechkie | Bloomsbury | $26 | 304 pp.
Early in Lifted by the Great Nothing, Karim Dimechkie's endearing first novel, Mr. Yang, a patient horticulturalist who lives next door, invites Rasheed Boulos and his son Max to a special ceremony. Mr. Yang has spent 14 years cultivating a rare Asian plant he calls camukra and he calculates that it will finally bloom today. However, the nature of the flower is to open and wilt within less than five minutes. While celebrating the beauty of the blossom, Mr. Yang's guests are acutely aware of its impermanence.
Though the only explicit memento in the novel of its author's sojourn in Texas is the Spurs cap that a character called "Coach Tim" rarely removes from his head, Dimechkie is a former Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. And he arrives heralded as the latest floral wonder cultivated in the literary nursery of UT's Michener Center for Writers. Philipp Meyer, another former Michener Fellow, blurbs Dimechkie's novel as "a hugely original, big-hearted, and staggering debut." Moreover, Kevin Powers, also a former Michener Fellow turned literary celebrity, describes the novice author as "one of the most psychologically attuned, wise, and evocative young novelists I've read."
In an essay he published in the March 5 edition of The New York Times, Dimechkie recounts how, after moving from Austin to New York, he, a manic-depressive, suffered a devastating nervous breakdown from which he recovered with the help of medication and a pit bull mix named Pavlov. The Pavlovian reaction to the essay — keen interest in Dimechkie's forthcoming book — has been widespread, even if, unlike the response to the flowering of a camukra, there are no house parties planned to celebrate its appearance. Its shelf life deserves to exceed five minutes.
On the opening page of Lifted by the Great Nothing, Rasheed installs a tree house in the Boulos backyard in Clarence, New Jersey. It is intended for use by 12-year-old Max, an only child whose happiness seems to be Rasheed's exclusive, obsessive concern. Max, who does the household cooking, has been told merely and vaguely that his mother died long ago in Beirut. He and Rasheed seem to live entirely for each other. Rasheed, who prefers to be known as Reed, tries to erase all traces of their Lebanese origins. "When we are in America," he informs Max, "we are Americans." To a well-meaning neighbor who assumes that Reed must be an expert in Middle Eastern cuisine, he insists: "I don't eat hummus, I don't enjoy hummus, and I don't know how to make hummus." Yet, the way he botches a familiar greeting – "Audi, fucks" – betrays the fact that Mr. Boulos was not born in New Jersey.
Lifted by the Great Nothing is an immigrant narrative about two newcomers from Lebanon who settle in a residential neighborhood populated largely by Asian-Americans and African-Americans. To support his son, Rasheed works two jobs, in a warehouse and a gas station. This is also a coming-of-age story, one that follows Max from 12 to 26. When, at 17, Max learns that his quirky childhood idyll has been based on a monumental lie, he embarks on a journey to find out the truth, one that takes him as far as Paris and Beirut. It is no surprise that Dimechkie once told an interviewer that Jonathan Safran Foer was an important early influence. Like Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Dimechkie's Lifted by the Great Nothing focuses on a sensitive, stubborn and sometimes cloyingly sweet boy who is determined to solve the mystery of a missing parent. Along the way, we meet Kelly, a self-righteous scold of global injustices who insists on teaching Max how to masturbate; Nadine, a vivacious African-American doctor who, though 14 years his senior, becomes his sexual partner; and Samira, a Hezbollah guerrilla fighter turned saintly volunteer in a refugee camp.
At several points, Max, who learns that his name is actually Hakeem and whose hold on reality is upended at least twice, undergoes a near-death experience. Poised between life and death, he is both cast down and raised up by an awareness of the cosmic sham — simultaneously crushed and lifted by the great nothing. Perhaps a representation of the manic-depression with which Dimechkie has been diagnosed, Lifted by the Great Nothing provides an exhilarating and devastating encounter with disorientation. As Rasheed points out: "Loving too much makes life very difficult." But loving not enough makes life unbearable.