What is a man? And, still more important, what is love? These are the questions posed by Salar Abdoh’s latest novel, A Nearby Country Called Love. Manhood and the search for love bedevil Abdoh’s dispirited protagonist, Issa. Deported from the United States after years working a deadening hotel job, Issa has returned to his childhood neighborhood in Tehran, Iran. He never knew his mother, and his artistic gay brother died young of AIDS, followed quickly by his macho father. Though Issa loved them, he struggled to understand his brother, and his father’s determination to make real men out of both of them was damaging. Even after his father’s passing, a culture of crushing patriarchy overshadows Issa’s life: The novel opens with Issa and his friend Nasser ineffectively attempting to avenge a woman who found her husband so intolerable that she burned herself to death.
Into this violent, hypermasculine society, Abdoh introduces characters who quietly insist on being themselves, allowing Issa to see different, less rigid ways of being. They include Mehran, the gay man who becomes tough guy Nasser’s improbable lover; Mehran’s roommate, a trans man; and Babacar, a Senegalese man who’s always late for prayers but wants to become a Shia cleric. There’s also Issa’s formidable Turkish stepmother (who has a man’s name) and her equally formidable daughter, a doctor whose estranged husband torments her until he learns not to. Then, there’s Hayat, the young woman whose poetry Issa fell so in love with that he sojourned to Lebanon to meet her, not even knowing her real name.
When Issa and Hayat finally meet, she’s . . . not what he imagined. More trouble ensues. But Issa, a supremely loving, compassionate and accepting spirit (his very name means Jesus) fails to understand that he is already surrounded by the love he seeks. In Abdoh’s sad, hilarious, big-hearted book, the nearby country called love is the very place where Issa stands.