Sun, Feb 19, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Welcome to the Islamic States of America

Although 'Prayers for the Assassin' relies on cliche, Robert Ferrigno has done his best to transplant Islam into US tradition: Barbie now wears a burqa

By Janet Maslin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Prayers for the Assassin
By Robert Ferrigno
397 pages
Scribner

Robert Ferrigno's Prayers for the Assassin is a futuristic fantasy that puts an Orwellian nation, the Islamic Republic, where the United States of America used to be. The author does not treat this as a pleasant prospect. He imagines a 2040 in which New York and Washington are gone, Mecca is radioactive, Mount Rushmore has been eradicated and the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan has been renamed for Osama bin Laden. Super Bowl cheerleaders are men. Barbie's got a burqa. At least Starbucks prices aren't much higher than they used to be.

The book is a thriller, and in some ways a surprisingly common-place one. But Ferrigno has given serious thought to his hypothetical scenario. He tries to envision the complexities of daily life in a world where all the rules have changed -- except in the Bible Belt, which has become a Christian refuge. In the Muslim nation, the black robes enforce religious laws and goats' heads are delicacies at butcher shops. Amusement-park attractions include AK-47s and suicide belts for children. Popular songs deliver constructive moral lessons. Needless to say, nobody draws political cartoons.

These aspects of the book are by far its most involving. Ferrigno has done his best to take an outline of Islam and morph it with US tradition, catalyzing these changes with a whiff of nuclear war. And since he is not on a suicide mission, he takes care to note that many Muslims in the new regime are good citizens, reasonable people both modern and moderate. They are wary of funda-mentalism, and they tolerate anything-goes zones where strict religious rules of behavior are suspended. Las Vegas remains ground zero for forbidden games.

While the book's background exerts a grim sci-fi fascination, its central story manages to be surprisingly ordinary. Even in this radically altered future, heroes and villains and romantics behave pretty much as expected. Declar-ations of love sound the same, even if threats have a new ring. ("I'm gonna snap your neck so fast you'll be rolling in perfumed virgins before you know you're dead.") And a chase is a chase, even if the leading man is a skilled fedayeen fighter and the bad guy, an assassin pointedly named Darwin, is on his trail. Throughout the book, from hidden lairs to corridors of power, the same quaint, melodramatic command is heard: Find the girl.

The girl is the feisty young historian Sarah Dougan, daughter of the new regime's first and most famous martyr. She is an influential scholar. Also, in a pinch, she can stick a chopstick in a rapist's eye. Dougan is the author of "How the West Was Really Won," a study of debased popular culture in pre-Islamic US. It is Dougan's contention, as well as Ferrigno's, that the seeds of destruction can be seen in the US' present-day reverence for celebrities, extreme tastes in pornography and across-the-board decadence. "They were so free, so unencumbered by morality, that they craved chains," one character says about the late 20th century.

Ferrigno has a cautionary message to deliver, and Dougan is his mouthpiece. Despite "the supple harlotry of her limbs" and her by-the-numbers love affair with Rakkim Epps, the book's hero, Dougan is on a serious mission. History states that the dire nuclear events of 2015 and subsequent US political upheaval were a result of a Zionist plot. As a consequence of this claim, American Jews have taken refuge in Canada and Russia. Israel has been destroyed. Dougan questions that version of events.

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