When Hussain Naqvi arrives at the central London restaurant that is our meeting place, he looks much as his readers might imagine him. His suit is well-tailored, his shirt collar open, his gait fashionably languid.
HM – as he likes to be known – is the author of a first novel that has taken a slow, steady route to remarkable international success. Home Boy was first published in the US in 2009, to an enthusiastic review from The New York Times. A year later it entered India’s list of top 10 fiction bestsellers, and won the US$50,000 (Dh184,000) DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Now it has its London publication, via the prestigious Hamish Hamilton imprint of Penguin.
The novel tells the story of three young Pakistani-Americans in New York in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Our narrator, Chuck, is an immigrant to the city from Karachi: when the towers fall, along with his friends AC and Jimbo, he sets off in search of a missing compatriot known as the Shaman. But the three young men quickly discover that their adopted country has changed, and soon enough they find themselves under the scrutiny of the FBI.
Thanks to its striking narrative voice and deft portrait of American youth culture, Home Boy has drawn comparisons to perhaps the greatest of all American coming-of-age novels, The Catcher in the Rye.
Today, Naqvi is in London to mark the UK publication. He’s due to appear on BBC radio, so we meet just around the corner from Broadcasting House on Portland Place. Naqvi spent nine years at the World Bank in New York and Karachi before turning to fiction; so what, I wonder, prompted the change?
“I’ve been writing since I was a child,” he says. “Writing is something that sustains me. I tried writing after college. My aspiration was to write short stories and sell them to magazines. In retrospect, it was a misplaced and whimsical ambition. When I found myself cadaverous and unable to afford food, I walked into the World Bank and demanded a job, and somehow I got one.
“After nine years, in 2003, I’d had enough. I knew I had enough money to cruise for six months, so I left and that’s when I started writing Home Boy. Of course, the money didn’t last and Home Boy was a tough slog, so it was a hard time. But also a fabulous time, because I was finally managing to do what I’d always wanted.”
Home Boy has been hailed for its portrait of an America – in particular, New York – changed in the immediate aftermath of September 11. Before the attack, Chuck, Jimbo and AC drink and party their way through an Eden of hedonistic opportunity. Afterwards, on a night out, Chuck notices “the smell of burning wafted through the night, and in the distance police lights shone like disco balls”. So did a similar moment of recognition for Naqvi provide the initial impetus for Home Boy?
“I always like to say I can’t quite remember the genesis of Home Boy,” Naqvi says. Immediately, though, he starts on an explanation that has the feel of mythology about it:
“One night after a few drinks in CBGBs [a New York nightclub] I scrawled a few lines of Home Boy on a cocktail napkin. That’s ...” and he pauses, “as far as I can recall.
“But I was in the States at an unsettled time, and Home Boy, like all my writing, was an attempt to make sense of my anxieties.”
When Chuck, AC and Jimbo drive into the American hinterland in search of their friend, they find the spirit of the country changing around them. Does Naqvi find that America, now, is a less open country?
“I don’t live in America now so I don’t have immediate knowledge of what it’s like day-to-day,” he says. “I always felt at home in America, but from what I can glean things have changed in a fundamental way. America reacted as all human beings do: they were hit and they wanted to hit back.
“But I don’t subscribe to the idea that 9/11 was a unique loss-of-innocence moment for the USA. I mean, you can go back to Vietnam, to Pearl Harbor, to the struggle of African-Americans, and to the history with native Americans; 9/11 is one among a chain of moments that shaped the country.”
Home Boy clearly positions itself on another important American timeline: that of the coming-of-age novel. In addition to the Catcher comparisons, more than a few critics have noticed the resemblance of the mysterious Shaman to Gatsby in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
“I very consciously wanted to locate the book within the tradition of the American bildungsroman, dating back to Mark Twain,” says Naqvi. “It’s not only Catcher and Gatsby, there are also NWA, Hotel California, Above the Law: in the construction of Home Boy there is a very conscious attempt to summon Americana. So it’s a celebration of America, as well as a critique.”
But does the author of Home Boy call the US home? Will that country always be his subject?
“I carry a Pakistani passport,” says Naqvi. “I live in Karachi now, and I’m working on a novel set in contemporary Karachi. There are universal concerns such as love and mortality, and they preoccupy me now.”