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The post-life of an addict is oftentimes described as miraculous. The transformation from selfish, delusional, piss-in-the-bed, black-out, screaming drunk to clear-eyed, less self-centered, accomplished, responsible, possibly loving person is not a rare occurrence, even though it is statistically uncommon. (All you have to do is walk into an AA club room, and you’ll find the old-timers, the men and women who have accrued decades, who continually sit in horrible chairs, drinking terrible coffee to hopefully save their lives by giving their time and care.) But, perhaps the miracle, and the idea running throughout Kaveh Akbar’s Martyr!, is this agitation or worry behind living a meaningful life, or Cyrus Shams’ particular conundrum: Will my death actually matter? He obsesses over martyrdom and other historical figures, e.g. Joan of Arc, Bobby Sands, the Tiananmen Square Tank Man, which fused with the promise of AA, compounds his uneasiness about death.  

Akbar’s dense, contemporary novel (with oddball, dream-like cameos from the likes of Lisa Simpson, Madonna, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to a multitude of perspectives from the dead) chronicles, yes, the inexplicable sobriety of Cyrus Shams, but perhaps more importantly the questions, anxieties, and frustrations inside sobriety. Cyrus cannot long suppress the emotions, the biological bent toward all-out self-destruction. He faces his father, an alcoholic immigrant who works at a poultry farm in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He confronts his sponsor, who’s frustrating, but reorients him toward a healthier life. He looks at his sexuality and friendship with Zee. He reflects on his mother’s tragic death onboard Iran Air Flight 655. Binding all these divergent strands together is Cyrus’ meditations on martyrdom and his pursuit to visit a dying Iranian artist, Orkideh, holding open sit-downs at a Brooklyn art museum, a la Marina Abramović. The exhibit is called DEATH-SPEAK, and what is revealed in their conversation changes Cyrus’ life  forever.  

Kaveh Akbar’s Martyr! is another iteration of his work, expanding both what it means to be a writer in America and how the Midwest is represented in literature. He graduated from Butler University’s MFA program. His work includes editing Booth and his interview website, Divedapper, running the subsequent Divedapper Poetry Festival, and teaching at Purdue University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In his past several poetry collections, he has centralized his rage, his introspection into unhinging the intangible. Martyr! continues Akbar’s work further by synthesizing and, by way of writing, historicizing a perspective not often seen in the historical landscape of Indiana and the Midwest in general. Kaveh Akbar uses the novel as a way to reflect on Iran and America, while tying together the disparate elements of his autobiography, creating a striking fissure in the mainstream conversation around identity, addiction, and political action.  

Near the end of the novel, there’s a moment of reprieve. Cyrus senses “the feeling of prayer—not prayer itself, but the stillness it leaves—lifted from the earth, smelling of grass and woodsmoke.” After the suicidal ideation, delayed grieving, incredible revelations, Cyrus experiences another fleeting moment of serenity, long ago an impossibility. But now, due to his new life in sobriety, he is opened to an expansive acknowledgement of the here and now in his present relationship with Zee, his sponsor, and the beauty of the unknown without the spiraling fear of a meaningless death. This too is realized in the life of Kaveh Akbar. In an interview with Anahid Nersessian, Akbar reflects on the action needed to enact change. It isn’t the grandiosity of Joan of Arc, but, he says, “the measurable action I can take, things that move the needle, however incrementally, on a day-by-day basis…Life has put before me a menu of just these totally and utterly quotidian, frustratingly mundane actions.” 

Taylor Lewandowski has written for Interview Magazine, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, Forever Magazine, and The Creative Independent, among other publications. He teaches high school English and co-owns Dream Palace Books & Coffee in Indianapolis. 

Kaveh Akbar’s poems appear in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Paris Review, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He is the author of two poetry collections: Pilgrim Bell (Graywolf 2021) and Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James 2017), in addition to a chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry 2016). He is also the editor of The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 100 Poets on the Divine (Penguin Classics 2022). In 2020 Kaveh was named Poetry Editor of The Nation. Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and teaches at the University of Iowa and in the low-residency MFA programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson. In 2014, Kaveh founded Divedapper, a home for dialogues with the most vital voices in American poetry. He grew up in Warsaw, Indiana, and was formerly on the faculty of Purdue University’s MFA program.  

Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.