Zachary Lazar, I Pity the Poor Immigrant: a Novel. Little, Brown. 256 pages. Hardcover $25.00.
This high-end literary novel is challenging and enthralling. It points in many directions, but its intertwined journeys ultimately have a rich closure. A fiction made in part of purported memoir(s), it probes the nature of memoir both philosophically and psychologically. The psychology of immigrant status and identity is another concern, here understood as having a connection to the Jewish condition throughout history. The novel also explores the violent edge of Jewish experience, using the poles of King David and Meyer Lansky as well as the quandary of an incessantly armed Israel.
The novel’s time line begins in 2012 before shuttling back and forth at intervals large and small. We meet Hannah Groff, a journalist nearing forty, who opens her relationship with her readers by telling of a meeting with her father that underscored the distance between them. She mentions her first book, “a memoir of my brief marriage,” and then goes on to tell of her 2009 visit to Israel. Hannah feels compelled to research and investigate the murdered poet-essayist David Bellen.
But this quest leads to Gila Konig, a Hungarian-born refugee who once knew Hannah’s father all too well when Hannah was a child. In fact, Gila worked in the Hebrew School of the Temple the Groffs belonged to. As we will later discover, Gila knew Meyer Lansky at least as well. So, yes, all of these lives touch: Gila also knew Bellen, author of a book called Kid Bethlehem that fashions King David as a twentieth-century gangster.
And then we jump back to meet Gila Konig in Tel Aviv circa 1972 during the time of Lansky’s failed appeal for citizenship and asylum in Israel. The reputed tough guy is “understated” and mannerly. Konig and Lansky are both immigrants to different countries (Lansky to the U. S.) at different times. They are part of the immigrant nation that is the still-dispersed Jewish people and, somehow, accounts for the existence of a Jewish mafia – even an Israeli mafia.
Then we jump back to New York at the end of the Roaring Twenties and find a much younger Lansky, making his way in the world of crime and easily available women.
And so it goes, layers of re-imagined history and biography with pure invention artfully blended into the mix, their several voices – all strangely haunted – wrapped inside of Hannah’s. Intriguing secondary characters, including Hannah’s father, an Israeli journalist named Oded Voss who serves as Hannah’s guide and interpreter during her research on Bellen, and a piecemeal portrait of King David – the primal Jewish gangster.
Hannah in particular, but also the other characters in this literary mosaic, is endlessly introspective.
One of the novel’s major sections is Hannah’s memoir of her investigation into Bellen’s death. She describes Bellen’s 2008 collection of poems as “in many ways a critique of current Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories.” This characterization suggests a motive for Bellen’s murder, but there are other possibilities. Following Bellen’s path allows Lazar, via Hannah, to bring the reader through Israel’s political, artistic, and physical landscape. It seems as if murder is everywhere.
Lazar also creates a voice and technique for Bellen’s own work, which forms another part of the intricate mosaic. When Hannah meets Bellen’s son Eliav, she learns even more about a heavy depression that clouds Israeli life. When she meets Eliav’s ex-wife, still other tones enter the novel.
Jewish mafia stories weave in and out of the novel, touching on Lansky’s later doings in Las Vegas, Cuba, and Miami.
The attraction of I Pity the Poor Immigrant lies in its sheer inventiveness, its surprising juxtaposition of incongruent elements that eventually click into place. Portions of the book are made up of short, polished vignettes that turn around in the reader’s brain like mismatched puzzle pieces until they fit. For example, as part of an extended linking of such short pieces – presented as a stretch of David Bellen’s essay called, of all things – “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” Lazar juxtaposes a piece called “Intifada” and another called “Permanent War.” The first piece, set in Israel in 2001, records events of the Second Intifada while at the same presenting Bellen’s worry over his son’s further withdrawal from their relationship.
“Permanent War” jumps to the constant conflict between “American’s heartland Protestants” and the threatening immigrant tides. The tides brought those who would become the Italian and Jewish gangsters, sometimes attacking the establishment, sometimes murdering each other.
Zachary Lazar spins these two passages in a way that allows them to echo and reflect one another.
Eventually, the book becomes a hall of mirrors, its various narrators, tales, and techniques forcing the reader to do the work needed to own the important insights that it offers. Making that effort pays off big-time.
This review appears in the September 2014 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).