Sometimes, a novel arrives at just the right moment.
Here we are in a crater of xenophobia. One of our presidential candidates is foaming at the mouth about “extreme vetting” for immigrants. But then along comes “Behold the Dreamers,” a debut novel by a young woman from Cameroon that illuminates the immigrant experience in America with the tenderhearted wisdom so lacking in our political discourse. While another author might have played that imperative title sarcastically, for Imbolo Mbue, “Behold the Dreamers” is a kind of angelic annunciation of hope, which ultimately makes her story even more poignant.
After a childhood of extreme poverty, Mbue came to this country in 1998 — recent enough to retain the optimism of an immigrant but long enough to understand our national schizophrenia about foreigners. Her novel is about a family from Cameroon living in Harlem on the eve of striking disruption. The United States is about to elect its first black president and descend into the Great Recession. But Jende Jonga, the hero of this tale, has his mind set on only one thing: becoming a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a hotshot Lehman Brothers executive. Jende and his wife, Neni, have been preparing for the interview for days. They’ve spent hours googling “the one question they ask at every job interview.” With the help of a volunteer at the library, they’ve written up a résumé that describes Jende as “a man of grand accomplishments”: farmer, street cleaner, dishwasher.
Mbue is a bright and captivating storyteller, inflecting her own voice with the tenor of her characters’ thoughts and speech. She can enjoy the comedy of their naivete without subjecting them to mockery, and this sweet, sweaty-palmed opening immediately enlists our sympathies: Jende had never before “had to worry about whether his experience would be appropriate, whether his English would be perfect, whether he would succeed in coming across as intelligent enough,” Mbue writes. “But today, dressed in the green double-breasted pinstripe suit he’d worn the day he entered America, his ability to impress a man he’d never met was all he could think about.”
Despite his clip-on tie, Jende gets the job as a full-time driver , and so begins a kind of modern-day “Driving Miss Daisy.” Jende ferries Mr. Edwards and his wife and children all around New York. They’re courteous and, when moved, generous employers, and the job gives Jende a front-seat position from which to eavesdrop on America’s 1 percent. The glamour of their lives is entrancing, but what about their infidelity, substance abuse, depression? Poor Jende and his wife can’t fathom how people with such wealth could “have so much happiness and unhappiness skillfully wrapped up together.”
This could have been awfully worn-out material — the noble immigrants and the corrupt fat cats — but Mbue attains something fresh and insightful here. For all their shiny excess, the Edwardses are not bad people, although they can be comically obtuse and self-absorbed. Clark struggles to guide his Lehman colleagues toward a more principled business model, even as the demands of the job draw him away from his elder son. Meanwhile, between garden parties and shopping excursions, his wife is poisoned by insecurity and the residual terrors of her adolescence. These people are dreamers, too, Mbue wants us to know, but they’re slipping into the nightmare of American extravagance.
The novel’s focus, though, is on Jende and his wife, hardworking people who love everything about the United States. It’s not that they’re ignorant of America’s ills. Neni had “watched enough episodes of Dallas and Dynasty to know that the country had its share of vicious people.” But nothing can shake the Jongas’ belief that America is “synonymous with happiness.” Mbue conveys their devotion with such earnestness that these pages practically ache. Drunk on the sweet old tropes of national exceptionalism, Jende is determined to “claim his share of milk, honey, and liberty flowing in the paradise-for-strivers called America.” Pursuing a degree in pharmacy, Neni feels this close “to having everything she’d ever wanted in life.”
But, of course, the country they love so devotedly doesn’t want them. There’s no villain in this novel except the vast bureaucracy designed to wall off the American Dream from outsiders. Advised by friends, encouraged by lawyers, strung along by government officials, Jende scrambles to attain the papers he needs to keep working, to keep living here, to keep his family intact. Being stuck in “immigration purgatory” is a strain that absorbs more and more of his time and threatens to break him, an ordeal that Mbue portrays in all its moral complexity. “He was an honest man, a very honest man,” she writes, “but one who was now telling a thousand tales to Immigration just so he could one day become an American citizen and live in this great nation forever.” As the deportation clock ticks down, Jende and his wife must ask themselves if securing a place here in “the center of the world” is worth destroying who they are.
Having set up a thoroughly plausible story that stretches to the very top and the very bottom of American society, Mbue presents a fascinating vision of the economic collapse of 2008. While the world-wrecking crisis plays out in the background, we can see the panic in the corner offices and “the sufferings of an American immigrant life.”
But this surprising writer won’t leave us in that slough of despair. There’s a persistent warmth in this book, a species of faith that’s too often singed away by wit in contemporary fiction. For all its comedy, Mbue’s social commentary never develops that toxic level of irony. Jende and his wife may not get exactly what they thought they wanted, but this book’s spirit remains irrepressibly buoyant.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
At 6:30 p.m. Aug. 23, Imbolo Mbue will be in conversation with Aisha Saaka of Young African Professionals at Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St. NW. politics-prose.com.
By Imbolo Mbue
Random House. 400 pp. $28