TOWELHEAD by Alicia Erian (Simon & Schuster), 326 pages, $32 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
It's no surprise that a book whose title is a racial slur is a nervy first novel. Gutsy and provocative, Towelhead quickly becomes impossible to put down.
It's 1991 in Houston, Texas. The first Gulf War is almost good to go, and being Arab American is not advised. Thirteen-year-old Jasira's neglectful Irish-American mother has banished her from their home in Syracuse, alarmed that her own boyfriend is taking too much interest in the teen. Jasira's been sent to live with her Lebanese-American father. Her new classmates taunt her with cries of "towelhead," her father scolds her for undergoing puberty, and no one seems to want her around.
Her attempts to figure out her sexuality without guidance from any of the clueless adults in her life, including her misogynist father and emotionally vapid mother, are simultaneously hilarious and sad. She develops a raging crush on her racist neighbour, Mr. Vuoso, who takes advantage of her fixation.
The only characters with an ounce of concern for Jasira's well-being are the white liberal couple next door. She also snags a sweet boyfriend from school, whom both her parents forbid her to see because he's black.
Author Alicia Erian may start out in Judy Blume territory, but she quickly pushes further into rawness. She writes with unapologetic wit about the vulnerability that comes from a very complicated coming-of-age, never moralizing or oversimplifying.
Jasira's innocence, curiosity and excitement about sex are explored with honesty. Towelhead, much like adolescence, is confusing, terrifying, sexy and impossible to forget.