Zal Hendricks seems at first glance an unlikely hero for a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of New York in the three years leading to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Born in Iran to a woman who has lost her mind, Zal is raised as an over-large and flightless bird and kept in a cage until, at 10 years old, he’s rescued and brought to the United States by a lonely behavioral analyst obsessed with feral children.
Despite the magically tinged and outsized tragedies that befall Zal in his early life and follow him through Porochista Khakpour’s second novel, “The Last Illusion,” he manages to exhibit the needs and desires of most coming-of-age protagonists: to find love, to find himself, to face and then survive the treachery of others who might exploit him and his story, to be normal.
And failing that, to appear to be normal.
Not an easy task for a feral child. Zal learns to stand straight only after suffering through numerous painful surgeries. He is, as we learn all feral children are, asexual. Human love is an emotion closed off to him, and Zal is — and will forever be — unable to smile or laugh.
Standing most firmly in the way of his idea of a normal life is Zal’s urgent desire, carried over from his life as a bird, both to fly and eat insects: “Earthworms, budworms, mealworms, army worms, ants, wood borers, weevils, mosquitoes, caterpillars, houseflies, moths, gnats, beetles … for starters.”
Still, Zal manages to navigate an all-too American (if stunted and late-blooming) adolescence: He becomes uneasy friends with a famous illusionist (Bran Silber, the creator of the title’s Last Illusion) who claims to know the secrets of flight; he finds romance with an anorexic and potentially psychic girl, Asiya McDonald, who senses tragedy will strike New York in September 2001; he promptly becomes obsessed with his girlfriend’s sister; he estranges himself from his father; lies to his therapist; binge-drinks pink champagne; ruins his girlfriend’s special night by engaging in a meaningless homosexual encounter with her brother’s childhood friend (meaningless, he claims, because all sex is meaningless to the asexual feral child); and gets himself fired from multiple jobs.
Even as he seeks out some better understanding of what is and isn’t normal, the novel pitches us toward a moment that will decidedly upend our very definition of normal.
It’s clear from the start that with “The Last Illusion,” Khakpour hopes to avoid second-novel syndrome by sheer force of will, writing a novel of grand if flawed ambitions. By modeling her Zal after the Zal from the famous Persian epic, “Shahnameh” (or the Book of Kings), Khakpour references storytelling on an epic scale.
The Zal of legend was the son of an ancient Iranian hero, born an albino and left to die on Mount Damavand, where he was raised by an enormous bird, Simorgh, and became “one of the greatest warriors of ancient Persian legend.”
Khakpour’s Zal does not soar, however; he does not become a great warrior, does little in fact but spend the bulk of the novel firmly land-bound battling against self-doubt, indecision and his own inability to be normal.
And while Zal’s fight is not without merit, the novel sometimes spends too much time cataloging the ways that not only is Zal a freak but the ways all the people around him — and quite possibly everyone on the planet — are freaks too. Khakpour’s near-constant focus on this question of Zal’s ability to be normal can become at times tedious, especially since she does little to hide what tragedy will befall New York by the end of the novel.
In its best moments, “The Last Illusion” captures, in a way that few other 9/11 novels have, that contradictory sense Americans have of how easy and trivial life was before the attack.
How simple it would have been for Khakpour to feed off the nostalgia of that innocent time when she writes that, in the days leading up to 9/11, Zal and Asiya “ate ice cream, ices, gelato … went to Jones Beach and Long Beach for sunbathing and swimming … kissed and had sex and kept each other busy with their very presences.”
Khakpour refuses this easy, nostalgic route, reminding us throughout her novel that tragedy predates 9/11, that even a year as innocuous as 1999 (remembered mostly as the year Y2K didn’t happen) contained the shooting of immigrant Amadou Diallo; the plane crashes of Korean Air Cargo, Mandarin Airlines and EgyptAir; earthquakes in Colombia, Turkey and Taiwan, and the shootings at Columbine, just for starters.
It’s with these reminders that Khakpour is able to darkly color otherwise sentimental sentences such as, “Some days, it even seemed like things were all right in their world,” and offer us a more complex portrait of ourselves.
Gonzales is the author of “The Miniature Wife and Other Stories.”
The Last Illusion
Bloomsbury: 336 pp., $26