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Iran's notorious secret police, it seems, cannot police all of its country's secrets.

In Salar Abdoh's Tehran, a city more populous than New York City, the vagaries of the human heart create a surprisingly unbridled and nonconformist tableau against a backdrop most Westerners view as monolithic, repressive, theocratic. It's a place marked by "unlikeliness and lies and contradictions and occasional transcendence."

This is nicely demonstrated near the end of "A Nearby Country Called Love." In a city park near a noisy street demonstration, a young protester has climbed a tree and set fire to her hijab. As police try to talk her down, old men play badminton a few yards away. Another time, two friends beat each other bloody, then dine together on a whole goat's head.

Trying to make sense of it all is Issa, the central character of a novel with a lot on its mind. Issa grew up in a middle-class Tehran neighborhood, attached to both his macho father and gay brother. He did his compulsory military service and emigrated to New York, returning 10 years later.

For Issa, whose father and brother died years ago, his homeland is at once comforting and confounding. Will he ally with his thuggish friend Nasser, who enlists him in random street fights to punish perceived injustice? Will he find love with a mysterious young woman who does beautiful translations from Arabic to Persian? Then there are the gender-fluid, gay and trans friends of Issa's late sibling, who became a noted theater artist before contracting AIDS.

An unlikely romance flares between Nasser and a handsome gay actor, Mehran. Nasser insists that they can proceed as a couple once Mehran transitions to female, sparking debates about gender reassignment in a country that (surprise!) condones such procedures in a limited fashion.

A colorful cast allows Abdoh to focus on gender fluidity, sexual identity, masculinity and feminism in a nation so fundamentally sexist that women are setting themselves on fire with alarming frequency. Issa takes a road trip to investigate a girl's self-immolation in a distant province. Other trips function as travelogues about a large country that Westerners have been advised to avoid.

The novel feels somewhat schematic, prone to "covering" currently hot topics. I sometimes wished for deeper dives and more vivid detail. Announcing that "Suddenly, Issa felt wiser," for instance, has less impact than revealing that transformation via dialogue or incident.

Still, through his sympathetic antihero, Abdoh gives us a rare, eye-opening look at people who rebel against authority simply by being their authentic selves.

Claude Peck is a former Star Tribune columnist and editor.

A Nearby Country Called Love

By: Salar Abdoh.

Publisher: Viking, 256 pages, $28.