There are many good writers who capture place and character, but don’t transport you into the scene.
“The day outside is hazy and gray; the fan on the counter blows dust. Jell-O spins slowly in the a glass case. The radio, always a notch too loud for my taste, is turned up even higher for news hour. British troops have left Egypt, the Army-McCarthy Hearings are in full swing and the man who invented the zipper has dropped dead.
“Can’t you see table six flagging you down? Alan asks. “You think people like coffee cold?” Alan Mandelbaum. Always behind me since we were kids, always watching.
I pick up the coffeepot and move down the aisle of customers. The regulars are at the counter, talking about Roger Maris, as if they’d been the ones up at bat– as if they never left the Bronx for Los Angeles. Beside them are their wives distracted, knitting, fat leather pockebooks on their laps. And there’s my father, in a red vinyl booth near the back. His head is bent over his lunch, so all I can see are the newspaper stained fingers gripping a turkey melt, even though it is Tuesday afternoon and he’s promised to out and look for a job.”
I had gone to the library to take out books and hit pay dirt. In a gluttonous display equal to guys in hardware stores I took out Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries”, Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”, Cynthia Ozick’s “Dictation” (which I just reviewed), Andrea Barrett’s “Archangel”, Jurek Becker’s “The Wall” and Molly Antopol’s “the UnAmericans”. Given the length of the first two award-winning novels I tried to renew them all. Surprisingly, only “the UnAmericans” was on hold and could not be renewed. It was the only one I had not started. I became curious why this debut collection of short stories was now in demand.
Ms. Antopol was a recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. This collection of short stories has now earned her a nomination for the National Book Award. It was not the testimonials from Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award recipients on the back of the book that encouraged me to borrow this book. It was the photograph of the author. She is attractive, it was her eyes that caught my attention. They are a little asymmetrical. One is a little higher than the other. One is a little wider and more open. It was the one slightly lower and more closed that attracted me. This eye seemed determined, a steel eye. It conveyed action, taking no prisoners. I thought the stories might be the same.
“The UnAmericans” could be considered Jewish literature, if having principal characters who are Jewish is the distinction. There are some cultural and political Jewish or Israeli aspects to the stories, but the characters’ problems are universal. Ms. Antopol lived in Israel after college. Her last name reflects her heritage. She revealed in the January 28, 2014 edition of the New Yorker (href=”http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-book-of-antopol-or-can-we-ever-know-the-past” title=”antopol”>) that her family comes from the village of Antopol in Belarus. The article describes the origin of some of the stories in this collection: family history; Antopol’s resistance during WWII; and the Red-Scare. Ms. Antopol’s great-grandmother was also named Molly and given tradition, for whom she likely was named. Whether her legal name is Antopol I do not know.
“My Grandmother Tells Me This Story” is drawn from resistance fighters in Antopol during World War II. It may not be family history, but it reflects the determination I saw in the photograph of the author. A young girl is sent by her parents through the sewers to live with resistance fighters in the forest to save her life. Now a grandmother in America, her granddaughter wants to learn about her history, having only heard about the heroics of her grandfather, the leader of the local resistance. It is not uncommon that those who excel during war, cannot thrive during peace. Her grandfather was such a person. The grandmother thrived in both. Quiet, permissive, ruthless. She trumped the others.
“The Old World” is about a marital rebound that fails due to age and the cultural difference between emigres and descendants from the same country. There is the irony of the parent-child belief system: what parents reject, the child adopts. In this case, the assimilated Brooklyn American Jewish father is likely agnostic. His daughter, to his chagrin, marries an Orthodox Israeli. Upon the failure of his short-lived rebound marriage, the father meekly reverts to prayer.
“Minor Heroics” is set in Israel, but is the universal role reversal story between a dominant older hero brother and an unheralded younger brother. It is a dynamic story that captures and translates the emotions of the characters to the reader. Human fragility is but a circumstance away.
“Duck and Cover” is drawn from the McCarthy Red Scare period. Ms. Antopol’s lefty parents lived through it. The story is narrated by the daughter. She supports her unemployed Communist Party adherent father. He values hard work, but she does work. She wants to have a normal teenage life and seeks refuge in a relationship with a non-Jewish boy of more centrist political leanings whose family is building a bomb shelter. Family normalcy is a relative affair. His parents have marital troubles and the bomb shelter is an alternative place to live. In the end, the daughter realizes blood is thicker than water and forgoes her teenage flame to rally to the defense of her arrested father. The paragraph at the beginning of this review, is the opening paragraph to this well told story.
“A Difficult Place” takes place in Israel, but it about relationships. What we want, or need, from our lives can be an endless pursuit, and not a coming of age. The principal character is a failed female journalist who cannot choose between career and a supportive relationship with a widower with a teenage daughter who also has yet to find herself.
“The Unknown Soldier” is another McCarthy Red Scare period piece. It is sadly comical. An actor trying to find work adopts an image of a foreign-born Communist. He performs it so well, onstage and off, that he is sent to jail. His marriage is destroyed, but upon release a year later, he has a weekend with his son who continues to adore him. It is a lovely father-son tale.
“Retrospective” is the last story. It is an emotional story about failed marriages. It has an Israeli connection, but is unfortunately failed relationships are universal.
The title for this collection,”the UnAmericans” is perplexing. It may refer to those deemed “unAmericans” by the Senator from Wisconsin. Most of the stories do not specially relate to being Americans or immigrants or emigres to the United States. Some characters do, and the 1950s and early 1960s are the time periods for a number of stories, but the themes transcend this.
This is a book well worth reading. Ms. Antopol is a good writer. She is working on a novel and I look forward to reading it. I do not believe a collection of short stories can be compared with a novel, as much as I like both forms. It is not that a novel is better. Comparing one form to the other for the purpose of choosing the National Book Award is ridiculous. It may make short stories more marketable, and in that there is value. Nonetheless, it would be best just to nominate both and not choose a winner. I don’t think this collection of stories will be the recipient of the Award, but it sets Ms. Antopol on the path to receiving one.