23 May 2021


BEHOLD THE DREAMERS is a fairly simple story and one we hear often: migrants making their way to America to establish a better life. Front page news and a common theme in fiction. However, in this novel, the first published by the natural storyteller, Imbolo Mbue, a couple from Cameroon face an added obstacle: the financial crisis and subsequent recession. 

He was leaving Cameroon in a month! Leaving to certainly not return after three months. Who traveled to America only to return to a future of nothingness in Cameron after a mere three months? Not young men like him, not people facing a future of poverty and despondency in their own country. No, people like him did not visit America. They got there and stayed there until they could return home as conquerors.

Hard to find jobs when so much of the workforce is out of work and this plot element is front and center. Jende has had the good fortune, through an enterprising cousin, to land a well-paid position as chauffeur for a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Jende’s determined wife, Neni, is studying to complete an associate's degree in order to progress to schooling as a pharmacist, but takes a summer job as housekeeper for the family. Until the crisis, they are optimistic. Eyes on the American dream.

Nothing in the world of New York movers and shakers is simple, nor is the struggle of the immigrant, and, as expected, their worlds collide in the face of the Wall Street debacle. The divide between rich and poor, white and black, and the core question of what it means to live a good life, is present on every page, but in the hands of this talented writer, never oppressive. We see the truth, we feel the heartbreak and the struggle. It would be easy to presume an ending, but do not: nothing is exactly as it seems. 

I saw this man who used to drive another executive at Lehman Brothers. We used to sit together outside the building sometimes; he was a fresh round man. I saw him downtown. The man looked like he had his last good meal a year ago. He has not been able to find another job. He says too many people want to be chauffeurs now. Even people who used to be police and people with fine college degrees, they want to be chauffeurs. Everyone is losing jobs everywhere and looking for new jobs, anything to pay bills. 

The mix of characters is just right. The financier, his social climbing wife and sons. The kindly staff assistant, the caring housekeeper. The Cameroon cousin and the immigration lawyer with tall tales to tell. A church which may or may not provide spiritual solace. All living complex lives suffering from a need for simplicity. 

Told more in dialogue than prose, the occasional descriptive passages perfectly render New York at the time [as a migrant from that great city, I can attest to the validity.] You will care deeply about Jende and Nini from page one, you will root for them, and worry about them, and also be shocked by their decisions, which, in truth, make perfect sense and which, in the end, like most good stories, has to do with who we are when far from what feels like home.  

Realistic and thoughtful, it’s a novel of cultures clashing and good people stumbling into the ravines of despair and misplaced hopes, and unexpected redemption. 

Mbue has just published her second novel, the highly lauded HOW BEAUTIFUL WE WERE, which takes place in Africa and deals with environmental degradation. I will report back.

13 January 2021

The Surreal Fits the Times: Charles Baxter

Charles Baxter has been writing quirky unforgettable characters for many years, more often in short stories than longer fiction, so this sixth novel, the first in a long time, is most welcome. I’m happy to report he is in fine form – an eccentric cast of characters trying to ground themselves in challenging times and in uncertain relationships. The novel asks the reader to observe closely, to read between the lines and peer into the shadows, in order to place ourselves right along side the action as the cast searches for truths, or at least, a sense of order.

And, given the strange times we live in, and the sense of displacement and disconnection rampant, the novel could not fit what ails us more. Thankfully, there is hopefulness in the strangeness. 

Like a spool of yarn, of many colors, the novel reveals in strands, a bit at a time, and takes the reader along, although I cannot give you a plot or even a meaningful summary: it’s just seekers of truths, meeting in strange ways, colliding, in effect, and then rolling along to an undefined destination, unravelling further as they go.

With his backpack, shabby sweater, jeans, and running shoes, he fit right in. He began to talk to himself in a low, eloquent mutter. As his money dwindled and his credit cards maxed out, he considered his situation dispassionately, as if his life were being lived by someone else. He felt himself expanding into invisibility. Soon, he imagined, no one would be able to see him at all. He would just fade away and vanish before taking up occupancy in the spirit world where he would be as unwelcome as he was here.

An aging couple searching for their missing adult son, a former actor. A group of retirees who take their walks at the mall. An oddball young woman taking a weird hallucinogenic and her bully lover who may or may be a domestic terrorist. An activist group supposedly helping the poor and the needy, but under the auspices of a shadowy figure who may or may not exist. Another sort-of collective called Sandmen who target street dwellers. And, a Trump-like President and Cabinet perpetuating a philosophy reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, for whom “charity is a sin... because it encouraged losers.” Oh my.

It’s not magical realism, although sometimes it feels that way. It’s not science-fiction, although it could be. It takes place in Minneapolis, Baxter’s personal home and favored landscape, so the just-plain-folk setting is a stark contrast to the idiosyncratic cast and ever-so-gently fantastical underpinnings. It all works.

We were younger then. We believed everything. We thought love could save the world... But I don’t believe movies anymore. I don’t believe in them, and I don’t believe their stories. They don’t seem real to me – just fantasy. Robots in space? Superheroes? Characters who look like Cary Grant? The only person who ever looked like Cary Grant was Cary Grants. Fantasy. And novels. All of it. It all looks made up now. Bunch of imaginary puppets on strings, dancing around. When did we lost our grip on reality?

There is a subtle lampooning of our current political climate which provides some insight into the otherwise murky plot and underneath the surface of all is deeply held belief, grief, anger, fear and hope. He’s a most unusual writer and this is a most unusual novel, so if you’re looking for the different, read THE SUN COLLECTIVE. Stranger than even the news and infinitely more fun.