Abdoh, born in Iran and now teaching English at the City College of New York, has written what may be the first-ever novel about militant Islamic terrorism in the United States. Unexpectedly, perhaps, this is not a page-turning story of intrigue and drama, but a roman noir full of layers of complication and brooding introspection.
The plot: Sami is dispatched by a super-secret intelligence agency in Iran to New York to infiltrate the terrorist rings in America. His purpose – and here begins the noir part – is not to help them attack U.S. targets but to prevent them from doing so. His agency has determined that if bombs go off in Manhattan, the U.S. forces will be patrolling the Persian Gulf and making life difficult for the Islamic Republic of Iran, so those bombs must be stopped. Sami presents himself as a terrorist and gets caught up in confusing rings of Iranian, Arab, and American agents. Trouble is, his confusion rapidly becomes the reader's too and it quickly becomes overly-burdensome to follow who is who and working for whom in Abdoh's shadowy world, especially as it does not seem all that serious. Guns go off and lives are lost, but it is more surreal than horrifying (Sami's ally was "as unfazed by his goon's dying as if the man had been lying there in his own pool blood for recreation").
There is another problem with Abdoh's story: as he understands it, the motive force for terrorism on U.S. soil comes from countries like Iran and Libya, ignoring the important development that this violence now derives primarily from American-based sources, not foreign ones. So the story is not just hard to follow, but it does not correspond all that well to reality. In all then, though sophisticated and competently written, The Poet Game is neither a page-turner nor an insight into Islamist violence in America.