"We're like vaudeville," says Hymie, the charming, self-absorbed skirt-chaser of "My America!" This is how he explains his family, freshly arrived on these shores from a pogrom and gang rape on the other side, to the cool and accomplished Reisel.
"Get used to us, Reisel," Hymie admonishes her; and the reader, too, might do well to heed this advice. For the dialogue in Eliot Wagner's new novel is largely composed of wisecracks, one-liners, and epigrams -- smart-alecky or lofty, saucy or sage, depending on who is speaking. It does require some getting used to, but once we adjust to the routine, there are genuine rewards, even for those of us who do not ordinarily care for vaudeville.
This vaudevillian quality -- with characters actually tipping hats to their own reflections in mirrors, twirling canes, yelling "I love ya, tree," or "New York, that's my town!" -- defines the first few hundred pages of the novel, as the Share family struggles to make it in and then out of Manhattan's Lower East Side. The musical comedy atmosphere has its pleasures and drawbacks. The pleasures include zippy, gutsy language, colloquial but classy, lots of color and bustle, and plenty of good laughs. The major drawback, as in most musicals, is a tendency toward superficiality of character and feeling.
The novel lacks a certain emotional power, so the reader is not seized by the fates of the characters. There is a nice, refreshing avoidance of sentimentality here, so the reader is spared the embarrassment of being cheaply manipulated. At the same time, there is something to be said for being richly and profitably manipulated.
There is music in the background of "My America!" As the Share family completes its journey from the Lower to the Upper East Side, vaudeville tunes give way to classical music. Danny Share, Hymie's son and the central character of the book, plays the ukulele as a boy and dreams of becoming a music hall sensation. By the end of the novel he is as old as the century; he has survived a marriage to a scornful, ruthless businesswoman, has been unrequited in love by two women of high spiritual gifts, has lost a beloved son in World War II, has maintained his decency throughout, and, in the final pages of the novel, is, by his joyful complaint, twisted around, turned inside out, all but extinguished, by Mozart.
On a less sublime plane, there is also money. As in most Jewish family sagas, of which "My America!" is only one of the latest entries in a crowded market, money and its acquisition are critical. We follow the economic fortunes of the Share family -- from Hymie's sweatshop days to the lamp-manufacturing business established by his children to the spectacular real-estate dealings of Danny's hard-nosed wife.
Of course, you don't have to be Jewish to pollute yourself with money. Danny, the best of the Shares, is also simply human, capable of believable inconsistencies in his desires and in his actions. The concert hall draws him, but so does the factory; he is attracted to the noble Reisel, but also to the calculating Carrie. The other characters are not as rounded; their responses are generally true to type, predictable. Even Hymie Share, for all his charm, is little more than a philanderer. Eighty years old and a great-grandfather by the novel's end, he is still on the prowl. He is a pathetic caricature. ("Yet what do people change to?" Danny asks himself. And he answers, "To what they always were, only more so.") Danny Share takes great pains to be different from his father, Hymie. Given the cyclical pattern of family sagas, his son, Teddy, shows every sign of being a chip off the old lecher's block.
The East Side story has been told before. Often it is seen as a paradigm of the immigrant experience. But this novel holds up well as the chronicle of five generations of one family, their "loves, hates, etc., etc.," as they like to say in sagaville; it does not need to be launched into a wider cultural orbit.
In the end, "My America!" is most impressive as a grand example of adroit story-telling from the inside. Wagner moves effortlessly from one character's perspective and interpretation of events to another's, using, in each case, that character's own language and idiom. The effect is so dazzling at times that it tends to distract, calling attention to style at the expense of the novel's persons and passions. Once distracted, however, the reader can stand apart and marvel at the fluency and authenticity of the language, and at the narrative resourcefulness.