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Immigrant Blues

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

AWAY

By Amy Bloom

Random House. 235 pp. $23.95

Amy Bloom knows the urgency of love. As a practicing psychotherapist, she must have heard that urgency in her patients' stories, and in 1993 when she broke onto the literary scene with Come To Me, we heard it in hers. She has never strayed from that theme. Four years later, she published Love Invents Us and followed that with another collection in 2000, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. A finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Bloom writes with extraordinary care about people caught in emotional and physical crosswinds: desires they can't satisfy, illnesses they can't survive, and -- always -- love that exceeds the boundaries of this world.

It's the kind of humid, overwrought territory where you'd expect to find pathos and melodrama growing like mold, but none of that can survive the blazing light of her wisdom and humor.

Now, with her aptly named second novel, Away, Bloom has stepped confidently into America's past to work in that old and ever-expanding genre of immigrant lit. It seems, at first, a familiar tune, but she plays it with lots of brio and erotic charge. Lillian Leyb is a desperate young woman, fresh off the boat, trying to make her way in New York during the mid-1920s. Like thousands of other Jews, she has fled the pogroms in Russia with no money, few skills and little English; she rents half a mattress in a crowded flat and competes for sewing jobs with other desperate young women. As potential employers survey the crowd, she pushes to the front: "Whatever it is like, Lillian doesn't care. She will be the flower, the slave, the pretty thing or the despised and necessary thing, as long as she is the thing chosen from among the other things."

Throughout this breathless story, Bloom blends her voice with her heroine's to create a deeply sympathetic narrative that's analytical but always inflected with Lillian's fervor. "She's burning up to learn English," the narrator notes, and after she gets hold of a dictionary and a thesaurus, her thoughts are filled (packed, engorged, crammed, infused) with parenthetical lists of synonyms. No effort is too much. If the boss demands some intimacies in exchange for a place to live, she'll pay up. If his gay son needs her to pretend to be his mistress, well, she'll do that too.

The varied expressions of desire never shock Lillian, a quality of tolerance that she shares with Bloom. In 2002, the author published a nonfiction book called Normal that examined the lives of transsexuals, cross-dressers and people with ambiguous genitalia. Away demonstrates that same compassionate interest in the broad spectrum of humanity, particularly all those people excluded from what we like to pretend is "normal."

Not a drop of self-pity falls in these pages. Instead, Bloom and Lillian seem to sigh over these men and women with their fragile egos and the ordinary needs that they consider illicit. At 22, Lillian has already survived so much that the humiliations and deprivations of New York are merely minor inconveniences: "Lillian has endured the murder of her family, the loss of her daughter, Sophie, an ocean crossing like a death march, intimate life with strangers in her cousin Frieda's two rooms, smelling of men and urine and fried food and uncertainty and need."

That breezy summary of horrors practically acknowledges that these are well-worn elements of an all too common tragedy, but Bloom knows how to keep her story surging with fresh energy. Just as Lillian attains some precarious comfort, Bloom turns this story of coming to America on its head: Cousin Raisele, presumed dead with the rest of the family back in Russia, shows up at the door and announces that she saw Lillian's 3-year-old daughter alive before she left.

"Sophie's name, the sound of it in Raisele's mouth, her name said by someone who had seen her, seen her laughing and chasing the chickens, seen her in her flannel nightgown and thick socks, braids one up, one down, seen her running in the yard. . . . Sophie's name is a match to dry wood."

In fact, this whole novel reads like dry wood bursting into flame: desperate and impassioned, erotic and moving -- absolutely hypnotic. Once Lillian hears that Sophie may be alive, her only ambition is to leave America and find her daughter in Siberia. The old immigrant tale suddenly becomes a wild emigrant adventure.

It's an impossible quest, of course, and everyone tells her she's "doomed, foolish, and peculiar." Her cousin is probably mistaken -- or lying (she wants Lillian's job and her sugar daddy). Her best friend, an old tailor who loves her deeply, can't understand why she would give up everything she has in America for such a hopeless cause as her lost daughter. "Because she belongs to you?" he asks. "Is that why?"

"No," Lillian answers. "Not that she is mine. That I am hers."

Because travel over the Atlantic Ocean and the European continent is impossibly expensive, a friend concocts a crazy plan to send her across North America, over the Bering Strait and then directly into the Soviet Union. He's underestimated her itinerary by about 3,000 miles, but none of this matters. "The fact is that however far it is from one place to the other, and however difficult it will be, they both know she must go."

And so she goes and goes and goes, with maps of the Pacific Northwest sewn inside the lining of her overcoat. It's a grueling journey that begins with a 22-hour train ride to Chicago in a locked broom closet. But that turns out to be the easiest of the trials Bloom throws in Lillian's path. Along the way, she's beaten, robbed, jailed and enslaved -- a whole catalogue of exploitation, from one side of America to the other as she soldiers on by train, steamship, mule, canoe and foot. No matter how little she has, everybody wants something from her, and it's usually sex. Yet nothing angers Lillian or derails her. Bloom has boiled this woman down to a single, inexorable desire, and Lillian expects no better from anyone else: "That people are ruled by their wants seems a reliable truth." She wastes no time fuming about that truth or wishing it were otherwise.

Indeed, nobody wastes any time in this novel, particularly the author. The whole saga hurtles along, a rush of horrible, remarkable ordeals: One minute Lillian is jumping into a deadly ménage à trois, the next she's beating a porcupine to death with her shoe and eating it. Not every woman could pull that off. Each chapter reads like a compressed novel, a form that works only because Bloom can establish new characters and grab our sympathies so quickly.

One of her most striking techniques is the way she periodically lets little tendrils of the story push ahead, shooting into the future to spin out the stories of characters Lillian encounters along the way. Lives bloom or wither in these asides, and then we're back with Lillian once more as she trudges on, inexorably, toward her daughter. And so what begins as a paean to the immigrant spirit in a city of millions is ultimately a gasp of wonder at the persistence of love, even in the remotest spot on earth. Hang on. ·

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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