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Book Review: Iranian-born Kaveh Akbar pens an unforgettable portrait of the poet as a young man

A martyr is someone willing to die for a cause. It is a provocative title for any book, let alone one by an Iranian American author. But as Kaveh Akbar so ably demonstrates in his debut work of fiction, he is after a different kind of martyrdom, one that involves sacrificing everything for his art. Or, as the novel’s hero puts in “Martyr!”: “I just want to write an epic. A book. Something about secular, pacifist martyrs. People who gave their lives to something larger than themselves. No swords in their hands.”

The novel begins as Cyrus, age 27, is getting sober. We soon learn about his parents: His mother, Roya, was killed aboard an Iranian jetliner accidentally shot down by the U.S. over the Persian Gulf when Cyrus was still a baby. His father, Ali, who raised him alone after emigrating to America to work in a Midwest chicken factory farm, died when he was in college.

As he emerges from addiction, Cyrus has been employed in a series of dead-end jobs, mostly dreaming of capturing “the hidden voice … beneath the mundane.” (“Cyrus was a good poet when he wrote, but he rarely actually wrote.”) Then one night, at an open mic in his Indiana college town, Cyrus shares with his friends his new idea for a writing project — a book about martyrdom, “people who at least tried to make their deaths mean something.”

Soon he is en route to New York with Zee, his lover and best friend, to meet Orkideh, an Iranian artist with terminal cancer who has moved into the Brooklyn Museum to stage her final performance — death. Naturally, Cyrus has to meet her, and secrets are revealed.

A modern take on the age-old story of a young person’s moral and psychological education, “Martyr!” is told in chapters that move back and forth in time, narrated from the perspectives of the central characters. Some voices are more convincing than others. A few episodes, including a dream sequence between Roya and the cartoon character Lisa Simpson, fall flat.

But overall, it is an extraordinary work of art, one of the best sobriety stories since Mary Karr’s “The Liars’ Club,” reminiscent of Zadie Smith and Anthony Veasna So in its rich evocation of immigrant lives. The glue that holds it together is Cyrus’s determination to write the novel we are reading: a contemporary exploration of how to make one’s life and death truly matter. For Cyrus, it can only mean one thing — becoming a writer.

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