CYRUS SHAMS, the acting protagonist at the heart of Kaveh Akbar's incandescent first novel, is a veritable Rushidean multitude; an Iranian-born American, a ''bad'' immigrant, a recovering addict, a straight-passing queer. 

An almost 30 poet who rarely writes, an orphan, a runner of open mics, an indefatigable logophile, a fiery wit, a self-pitying malcontent. But above all else Cyrus is sad; profoundly, inconsolably, suicidally sad.

His oceanic sorrows are fed by many Styxes, but the deepest and darkest is his mother's Roya's ''unspeakable'' death.

Just a few months after Cyrus was born, Roya boarded a plane from Tehran to Dubai to visit her brother Arash, ''who had been unwell since serving in the Iranian Army against Iraq. ''  Soon after her plane took off, it was blown up by a missile fired from a U.S. Navy warship : '' Just shot out of the sky. Like a goose.''

The reference is to the notorious real-life destruction of Iran Air Flight 665 by U.S.S. Vincennes in 1988. Sixty-six children were aboard Flight 665. Cyrus should have been the 67th, but Roya decided to leave her son home because he was so young.

It is her tragic death that shatters the Shams family irrevocably, plunging Arash deeper into his unwellness - '' He began seeing ghouls out the windows, demons, angels, Iraqi soldiers'' - and driving Cyrus's father, Ali, to immigrate with his son to the United States to start his life again.

If you think the condition of a native is a nervous one, try the condition of the immigrant who settles in the country that vapourized his loved one. The other American dream

A numbed Ali, turned granite with resignation, ends up in an industrial poultry farm in Fort Wayne [ '' a chicken hadn't shot his wife out of the sky''] and lives only for his distraught son, who grows up racked by night terrors, by insomnia, by irrational fears of deportation and lethal root beer.

Young Cyrus tries to hold it all together, first by chatting with famous people in his dreams [ Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Madonna, Batman] and later through art, intoxicants, recovery and friends.

But none of these palliatives eases his survivor's guilt or stills the '' doom organ, '' as he calls it, '' throbbing all day every day '' in his throat, the siren song of the suicidaire.

'' MARTYR ! '' opens with Cyrus at a breaking point : Unable to escape from his doom organ, and now an orphan after his father's death [ from a stroke during Cyrus's sophomore year of college ], he seems to be edging himself toward his big exeunt.

He causes trouble with his A.A. sponsor and his hospital job, going on about a suicidal attempt in which he soaked himself in alcohol and nearly set himself a ablaze.

Cyrus appears hellbent on joining his mother and gaining his rightful place as child no 67 on Flight 665. 

All that holds him back from the abyss is an obsessive desire for his life and his death to matter. He wants the opposite of his mother's meaningless end, to sacrifice himself for a higher cause:

'' You want to be a martyr?'' his incredulous A.A. sponsor asks him.

'' I guess. Yeah, actually. Something like that,'' he replies.

In Cyrus, Akbar has created an indelible protagonist, haunted, searching, utterly magnetic. But it speaks to Akbar's storytelling gifts that '' Martyr! '' is both a riveting character study and a piercing family saga.

The World Students Society thanks review author Junot Diaz, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a professor at M.I.T.


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