Enigmatic and multi-layered, Islanders is about finding one's own hard-won truth. A young man's indelible memories of the struggle to find intimacy—formative experiences like the ebb and flow of friendships, love, and ordinary workaday life—are viewed through a lens of nostalgic longing and hard-eyed realism as he attempts to come to terms with the past. Set during the cataclysm of the last years of the war in Vietnam, in a landscape that shifts between the bleak fishing towns of the Atlantic coast to the ruined cities of the Northeast, Islanders explores the classic theme of identity's intricate relationship to place.
"I have been reading Ammiel Alcalay's striking novel Islanders with deepening pleasure and admiration. Readers eagerly anticipating the next breakthrough in American fiction need wait no longer. I can't begin to convey the excitement and sense of discovery as one plunges into Alcalay’s gripping narrative. It’s as if fiction were being written for the first time, or reinvented. One is reminded of the fierce interiority of Robert Creeley’s The Island, of the hard-scrabble life depicted in Ed Dorn’s equally innovative By the Sound, of the fitfully contained violence of Michael Rumaker’s Gringos and Other Stories. But Islanders takes us beyond the work of these practitioners of the 'new American story.’ There is an arresting obliquity in the telling, a more profound sense of story beyond the constrictive banalities of plot and character; though there is powerful narrative tension and the people are eminently alive, more vital than if they were merely made up. The coastal towns described are more intensely real in Alcalay’s vision of his people’s conflicted encounter with them than if they were simple way stations in their progress into desperate revelation. This is fiction that draws you into itself leaving you sadder and wiser at its conclusion. This is fiction that doesn’t disappoint. Islanders is the real thing."
—Peter Anastas, author of the novel Broken Trip and a memoir At the Cut
"In Islanders, Ammiel Alcalay’s subject is recovery of the past, not in nostalgic recollection but, through the careful articulation of detail, the redemption of it. And these details are mostly those of work, both its drudgery and those vivid encounters in which shared tasks reveal rich and varied qualities of human exchange. Each remembered event is treated with distanced respect, often almost as ritual. Each failing and loss is given its worth and dignity. Islanders is hypnotic, a work of tough poetic elegance and great beauty."
"Ammiel Alcalay brings the ocean, its mist, boats, pontoons and islanders into a land-locked contemporary American literature. He sets his gaze on a particular bit of the world and lets that place unfold its kinetic essence in such a way that the novel is never finished but rather, it simply stops at a certain point, and then goes on beyond its pages in the reader’s mind.
The narrator of Islanders is constantly adjusting his lens, focusing on scenes both 'real' and 'cinematic,' and that ambiguity keeps us riveted to the text. The reader gets caught in a flow of perceptions that become a meditation, a smooth continuity that mixes people, and their human passions, inextricably involved, with particular objects, so that one wonders: am I reading, seeing, or remembering? From one ordinary gesture to the next ordinary experience we reach a kind of an underwater state of bliss, which is constantly fleeting, like everyday life.
There is in Ammiel’s work an unabashed tenderness for the world as it is, and that makes him courageous, different."
—Etel Adnan, poet/writer