Life has dealt Bilal Abu, the 16-year-old hero of Sulayman Xís novel Bilalís Bread, a triple whammy: Not only is he gay and a Kurdish-Iraqi refugee, but heís also a Muslim kid living in a tough, racially tense Kansas City neighborhood in the post-Sept. 11 era. He is also the constant victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his authoritarian brother Salim, Bilalís senior by a decade, the de facto leader of the family since their fatherís death years ago at the hands of Saddam Husseinís secret police.
Bilalís Bread thrusts us into Bilalís nightmare without mercy: Its very first page describes Salim and Bilal shaving each otherís privates, an activity that Salim habitually converts into rough, unwanted sexual contact. These painful moments behind closed doors contrast sharply with Bilalís romantic awakening with his best friend, Muhammad, an African-American classmate who also happens to be the son of the neighborhoodís imam. Forging a support group from friends and family new and old, Bilal eventually takes the plunge and stands up to his abusive sibling, with results both good and bad.
At its most subtle moments, Xís novel manages to channel some of the grace and emotional complexity of James Baldwin, another author whose work probed the prejudice and hardships faced by Americans belonging to multiple minority groups. But Baldwin rarely crossed over into preachy territory, crafting works that ached for a more tolerant world without force-feeding readers their authorís politics. When X shows us Bilalís internal world, he unveils a real gift for psychological detail and human empathy, but when his plotting requires descriptions of mob mentalityóa group of older teenagers bullying Bilal with accusations of terrorism as he attempts to peddle his motherís Kurdish breads by bicycle, for instance, or when a schoolís auditorium full of children reacts to a poem by Bilal about his sexualityóhis strokes feel broad and heavy-handed, and thus both less believable and less compelling.
Still, X has turned in an overall highly readable book. Bilalís Breadís 240 pages flip past with remarkable speed, and while it sometimes feels like empty calories, at other moments it sits with satisfying heft. Unfortunately from an aesthetic standpoint, its last pages fall into the former camp rather than the latter, but for some readers that may not be a bad thing: If youíve ever wanted to see the story of a gay teen, a Kurdish teen, a post- Sept. 11-Muslim-American teen, or a sexually abused teen (not to mention a gay, Kurdish, post-Sept. 11-Muslim-American sexually abused teen) receive the Rocky treatment, this is your book.