Zachary Lazar’s novel I Pity the Poor Immigrant evokes a sense of nostalgia for places you’ve never been, for homes you’ve never had.
Like other book reviewers before me, I’ve given a certain amount of thought to the title of Zachary Lazar’s third novel, I Pity the Poor Immigrant (Little, Brown and Company, April 2014). Fans of Bob Dylan, and I am not included among them, will connect the title to the song featured on the singer’s 1967 album ‘John Wesley Harding’. Perhaps the title was chosen because of this particular phrase in Dylan’s haunting lyrics: “I pity the poor immigrant / Who tramples through the mud / Who fills his mouth with laughing / And who builds his town with blood.”
One of the characters in this novel is Meyer Lansky, a central figure in American organized crime. During the 1940s, Lansky and his associate Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel persuaded leading Mafia investors to back the construction of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. Following endless delays and huge cost overruns, Siegel was shot and killed in Beverly Hills. The Flamingo, forerunner of all the Vegas glitzy resort hotels, played a starring role in the history of a town built with blood.
Decades later, Lansky fled federal tax evasion charges and moved to Israel, hoping to receive citizenship as a Jew under the Law of Return. “In a lifetime of scrutiny, he had never been convicted of a serious crime. That was why he had come here, because they were supposed to accept even someone like him.” But, two years after his aliyah, Israeli authorities deported Lansky back to the United States.
In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Lansky wondered why he had been rejected: “How much can an elderly sick man do to Israel… I can enter, as I have, any other country without criticism, except the place of my heritage…”
The journey starts with a crime
To state that Lansky is the central character in this multi-layered story is far from accurate. Actually, the protagonist is Hannah Groff, a divorced American woman in her forties who sets out on a journey. “The journey starts with a crime and the crime ramifies, the woman finds she has dishonored people without quite intending to, including her father, who knew Gila Konig, who knew David Bellen, who wrote a book called Kid Bethlehem in which the biblical King David is presented in the guise of a twentieth-century gangster.”
In a sense, this book is almost like a memoir, a scrapbook of incidents and stories and essays, but for Hannah, it is “a memoir about somebody other than ‘me'”. She thought she was “investigating a fairly straightforward crime story. But it became a story that led elsewhere, a story that led everywhere, a story I would have had no interest in if I hadn’t accidentally found myself inside it.”
The story, told in Hannah’s narrative voice, makes her “feel like a kind of immigrant in my own life, inhabiting a world of reflections and images of people I can’t fully know, some of whom are dead, and I see now that my life has been shaped by this network, in ways I didn’t always perceive.”
To make this statement better understood for the reader, the term ‘immigrate’ is defined for us as one who “comes into a new country, region or environment, esp. in order to settle there, as in the newborn entering the world, consciousness entering the brain, the corpse returning to the earth, silence on either side of the transit.”
Yet, as we know, not all immigrants who move to Israel, stay in the country. Some, like the crime-linked Lansky, end up going back to their country of origin. Those who leave Israel are considered ‘yordim.’ “They have ‘descended.’ They have gone down to the corrupt world outside, so to speak, abandoned the holy land that is their rightful home.”
“We would always be yordim,” Hannah says. Looking back on the book detailing her journey, the protagonist says, “I see now that this book is my idea of a Jewish story. It’s an unflattering story, negative in many ways. I suppose it begs the question, why tell such a story?”
Readers of Lazar’s novel will not hesitate with their response to Hannah’s question. The journey described, at one level depicting the Biblical escapades of King David and at another detailing the poet’s bloody murder, captivates from the very first page. The reader is drawn into the story, which makes such a strong impression that, as described by one of the characters, we experience “a kind of potent nostalgia for a place she’d never been, a home she’d never had.”
Zachary Lazar is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. He lives in New Orleans, where he is on the creative writing faculty at Tulane University. His previous novels were Aaron, Approximately (1998) and Sway (2011). Lazar is also the author of Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder (2010).