There are more than half a million Iranians living in L.A., which is why it is sometimes referred to as Tehrangeles. It's also why The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. should be required reading for anyone who thinks The Shahs of Sunset — that inexplicably popular reality show featuring shallow, materialistic, 20-something Iranians obsessed with money, looks and sex — provides an accurate picture of the Iranian community.
Gina Nahai's fifth novel also should be required reading for Angelenos who get their knowledge of what are commonly referred to as "Persians" from the envy-disguised-as-disdain gossip heard at Westside parties: They're too nouveau rich, too blatantly ostentatious, too tribal and too clever in financial affairs.
Her compelling novel, about one prominent Iranian family's 40-year civil war spread over two continents, is neither ethnic cheerleading nor is it an exploitative airing of the Iranian community's dirty laundry, as some Persians complained. It is, instead, an entertaining and educational portrait of an insular, commonly misunderstood refugee community caught in the netherworld between old Eastern traditions and new Western values.
The story is built around a perfect early–21st century villain known only as Raphael's Son, as he is called for all 413 pages. We're never told his real name, and the constant use of "Raphael's Son" is one of the few flaws in an otherwise masterfully told story. Raphael's Son is a bastard — in both senses — who made millions falsely incriminating and then extorting rich Iranians hounded by the religious regime in Iran after the 1979 revolution that deposed the shah. Decades later, in L.A., he became the architect of a particularly mean-spirited, Bernie Madoff–type Ponzi scheme, which victimized fellow Persians, including even his own father-in-law. Whereas Madoff bungled his way into a financial catastrophe and then just let it ride until it finally blew up, Raphael's Son deliberately set out to ruin people financially.
The story opens with Raphael's Son's throat-slashing murder in his car at the gate of his Holmby Hills mansion. Soon we learn there are dozens of suspects — his wife, his lone employee, his many financial victims, even enemies from the old country — who wanted him dead.
Nahai's character-revealing description of his body lying in his blood-stained Aston Martin offers a tasty sample of the stylish prose to come: "Raphael's Son's eyes were open and his mouth was slack, and he looked as gray and hollow as an inflatable toy animal with the air let out — like he had finally lost those extra 30 pounds he had carried so imperfectly for so long around the middle and that made everything he wore — those $2,800 Zegna suits from Saks Fifth Avenue and $700 jeans from Barney's and, on Sundays at the Sports Club in West L.A., those black Nike shirts that he had to buy in extra large, so they fit around the waist but hung too low over his knees — appear as if it belonged to an older, much taller brother.."
Nahai, 53, is an Iranian Jew who has lived in L.A. since 1977 and chose to focus her story on Iranian Jews, of which there are approximately 40,000 living here. But she tells the Weekly that she wants her insights, situations and personal histories and descriptions to apply more broadly.
"This is an attempt to capture the entire Iranian community," she says. "I hope the Americans who read it get a more realistic picture of what we are like."
While Raphael's Son is detestable, Elizabeth Soleyman is more representative of the Iranians who fled to America following the overthrow of the Shah. The humble, hard-working math genius who smells faintly like the Caspian Sea is the most vividly drawn and inspirational character in a book filled with others who linger in the brain. Elizabeth, the widow of Raphael's brother Aaron, had to leave behind her family's fortune and make her way to L.A. with a young daughter — who feels like Nahai's alter ego — and not much else.
One of the many pleasures of this sprawling, multigenerational story is the way it transcends the specifics of the Iranian diaspora with insights that could apply to anyone who ever came to L.A. with no contacts, no job and no place to stay. "There is a part of this obscurity that unshackles and liberates, that allows one to reimagine and reinvent himself, to start again, unfettered," Nahai writes. "And there's a part that lessens and devalues. For most, it turns 'I am' into 'I used to be.'?"
Nominally a murder mystery, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. delivers more than mere suspense: a Persian primer, a sometimes snarky snapshot of mainstream L.A. as it awkwardly absorbs yet another cultural influence, and a reminder that we can't escape our pasts, no matter how far we travel in body, spirit and social status.
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