'Cyclist' could use training wheels

In his first novel, "The Cyclist" (Simon & Schuster, 187 pages, $22), Viken Berberian examines the culture of revenge in the Middle East, not individual vengeance � an eye for an eye � but the sort involving militias, governments and explosions in public places.

"Six eyes for an eye, a dozen hands for a hand" is how Berberian describes it.

Most of the story occurs in the mind of the narrator, a bicyclist and would-be terrorist. The novel is set in Beirut, Lebanon, but the politics of the cyclist-terrorist are never made clear. He is from Israel's Galilee and is a Druse, a member of a tiny minority that's an offshoot of Islam.

After a dreadful bombing in his village, he and his Jewish girlfriend are recruited into "the Academy" for training to extract revenge by bombing a Beirut hotel. The book, though written before Sept. 11, would seem especially relevant now. But the recipe for terrorism is not the whole story here.

The cyclist-terrorist is food-obsessed. It's an intentional device � the author wanted a different point of view � but the gravity of terrorism gets lost in discourses on waraq einab (stuffed grape leaves), imam bayaldi (an eggplant and tomato dish whose name means "the imam fainted") and other Middle Eastern delicacies.

It doesn't help that Berberian is overly fond of alliteration, rhyme and inane humor. One character who has just eaten is "full of ful" � "ful" is an Arab bean concoction. And the cyclist, hurt in an accident, is "a Druse with a bruise."

The morality of the suicide bomber is touched on. He is carrying the bomb, nicknamed "the baby," but his girlfriend carries inside her a real baby. Should he deliver the bomb or live to be a father to his child?

Before we get the answer, plot changes arise suddenly outside the narrator's mind. The political situation shifts; the bombing mission is scrapped. Then just as quickly, the cyclist is struck down by a car.

It all seems pointless, though that may have been intended as the point.


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