When literary magazine McSweeney’s Quarterly jumped into the newspaper business for their winter issue, much of the buzz was about the concept. A literary quarterly does a newspaper? Layout was debated, along with cost and replicability. But inside “Panorama” lurked a delightful, messy nonfiction narrative by Wajahat Ali.
“Wells Fargo, You Never Knew What Hit You” stars Ali, if use of such a deliberately awkward voice counts as starring. Other characters include a California couple (“the Lipkins”) and Wells Fargo Bank, which threatens foreclosure on the Lipkins’ house.
Ali’s tale, which has the tone and pacing of an improbable sitcom, relates his first effort as a solo practitioner of California law. He makes us squirm in fear along with him as worries about failing clients whose trust he has inexplicably gained.
Invoking icons from American pop culture in his crusade (Rocky, Bigfoot, a Jedi Knight), Ali portays Wells Fargo as a “feces-covered bear” with whom he has a protracted wrestling match. The story follows Ali’s struggle to find the right person to talk to and the right thing to say to the disembodied telephone voices controlling the Lipkins’ future.
It’s a comic piece, but the tragedy of millions of all-too-real homeowners in foreclosure around the country undergirds the humor with substance. The dozens of unreturned phone calls and Ali’s random discovery of the magic words that get Wells Fargo to respond make it clear just how steeply the system is stacked against the Lipkins in a way that a non-narrative piece never could.
Ali bears watching, as he’s more than a lawyer who has written an interesting first-person story. He blogs and referees submissions at Goatmilk, writes regularly on Muslim communities and issues for The Guardian, and scripted a play about Muslims in post 9/11 America.