Review of I Pity the Poor Immigrant by Zachary Lazar. New York: Little Brown, 2014.
A professor of creative writing at Tulane University and the winner of numerous fellowships, Zachary Lazar has returned again and again to themes of violence, corruption, and the mystery of identity, “what’s to be found in the shadows,” as The New York Times put it about his second novel, Sway (2008), a story that focuses on Charles Manson, the Rolling Stones, and the avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger. His third book, the much-praised Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder (2009) is a true-crime memoir about his own father’s murder in 1975, shot by hit men in an Arizona parking garage. In a dismissive review of Lazar’s first novel, a coming-of-age narrative, Aaron, Approximately (1998), William J. Cobb objected to the “queasy blurring of the novel's narrator and its author.” That blurring also occurs in I Pity the Poor Immigrant, Lazar’s most recent novel, but here it seems that Lazar has masterfully transformed personal experiences and obsessions into a glittering, absorbing, at times maddeningly post-modernist meditation on “wolves and lambs, predators and victims, winners and losers, deceivers and deceived”—on both the individual and collective levels.
The narrator of I Pity the Poor Immigrant, Hannah Grof, is a 40-year old crime writer, an unsettled “person in transit” who has published a memoir about her first marriage and is now writing a book about her experiences investigating the dramatic murder of a (fictional) Israeli writer named David Bellen. Her explorations lead her to the (real) Meyer Lansky, the fabled Jewish mobster who unsuccessfully sought asylum in Israel; to Holocaust survivor Gila Konig, a (fictional) lover of Lansky, Bellen, and the narrator’s father; and, of course, to the narrator herself, writing another memoir (the book we are reading), but this time a memoir “without a self,” reconstructing her experiences as she wanders through “a world of reflections and images of people I can’t really know,” people who shaped her life “in ways I didn’t always perceive.”
Meyer Lansky, Gila Konig, David Bellen, Hannah Grof, Hannah’s father, Hannah’s Israeli lover, Bellen’s wife, Bellen’s son, Lansky’s wife and son: everyone in this book –including the Biblical King David, about whom Bellen has written a long poem portraying him as a twentieth-century gangster—is wolf and lamb, victim and predator, winner and loser, deceiver and deceived. No one is pure, no one untainted, no one able to escape the history of violence and suffering that marks all of us, though perhaps, especially, Jews. (Though for Lazar, it seems, this Jewish “exceptionalism” is not exceptional; if the Jews are “chosen,” it is only to demonstrate the universality of the moral ambiguity that dwells in everyone. Lazar is not afraid to call Israel a “gangster state,” even while affirming its necessity.) Until she is drawn into the investigation of Bellen’s murder, Hannah has avoided Israel, has avoided thinking about the Holocaust, has avoided, really, thinking about what has made her who she is. Suddenly seeking answers to questions she did not know she had, she finds, in the end, only paradox and complicity: the book she writes is a wild hall of mirrors that leads us all into a confrontation with our own dark shadows.
Reviewed by Joyce Zonana
Joyce Zonana, whose memoir, DREAM HOMES, is available from The Feminist Press, is a Professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College branch of The City University of New York. She is a frequent contributor to NOLA DIASPORA.