If America has a Victor Hugo, it is Amy Bloom, whose picaresque novels roam the world, plumb the human heart and send characters into wild roulettes of kismet and calamity. Her best known work, “Away,” was an epic adventure set in the early 20th century. In it, a Jewish mother survives a devastating Russian pogrom, comes to America, becomes a famous actor’s mistress, then traverses the country, joins the African American underworld, and crosses Alaska and Siberia in search of her daughter. There are few who feel the immigrant impulse as keenly as Bloom. There are fewer still who understand that Americans are the “lucky us,” the anointed ones who can shuck the past again and again until, by dint of wit and will, we reinvent ourselves. “It’s good to be smart,” a character in Bloom’s new novel tells us; “it’s better to be lucky.”
“Lucky Us” is a bustling tale of American reinvention. Like Hugo, Bloom fills her narrative with surprising twists and turns, betrayals, passions and no little scandal. But unlike Hugo’s, Bloom’s work is blessedly short and suffused with a modern sensibility. Although the setting is World War II and the action takes us from Ohio to Hollywood to Brooklyn, not to mention American internment camps and the bombing of Dresden and Pforzheim, there is nothing old about this story. It moves like today’s news.
The novel centers on Eva Acton, a bright 12-year-old from small-town Ohio, who is the offspring of an ongoing affair between a flamboyant British professor, Edgar Acton, and his waitress lover. When Edgar’s wife dies, Eva’s mother bathes Eva, dresses her, combs her to a fare-thee-well and tells her that they will now “drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.”As soon they step into Edgar’s comfortable parlor, his 16-year-old daughter, Iris, whisks Eva upstairs and tells her a thing or two about the world she’s entered. When they hear a car’s engine start up outside, the two girls run down and see the brown tweed suitcase that Eva’s mother has left for her on the porch. “I was thirteen,” says our narrator, “before I understood that my mother wasn’t coming back to get me.”
So begins this high-octane tale of two half-sisters who take it upon themselves to reverse their sorry, motherless fortunes. Iris, as it turns out, is a gifted speaker and actress, the winner of many a contest for elocution, poetry and dance. Eva is a studious, responsible girl with no ostensible ambition except to support her new big sister. Edgar is something of a lovable cad. When Iris learns that her father has been filching her contest winnings and rummaging through Eva’s shoes for evidence of a nest egg, she declares it the last straw. Even though Eva has not finished school (she “needed more education like a cat needs more fur”), Iris decides that the two of them will now climb down the honeysuckle trellis and set out for Hollywood and whatever else destiny has in store. It is 1941, and Hitler, too, is feeling the wanderlust.
As Nazi Germany consolidates its hold on Europe and marches east, Iris takes her charm offensive to the American Babylon. Three months later, she has landed a starlet’s contract with MGM. Six months later — even as little Eva cooks, washes and pays regular visits to the library — Iris racks up five movies and three speaking roles. But that lucky streak will not last. Less than a year later, at 19, Iris is banished from Hollywood forever, smeared as a hopeless pervert. It seems Hedda Hopper, Hollywood’s vicious queen of gossip, has laid hands on three snapshots of Iris with another starlet, kissing and cavorting naked on a deserted beach.
“Well!” as old Professor Edgar Acton shows up to exclaim, “aren’t we Opéra-Bouffe-by-the-sea.”
Yes, danger and the ridiculous seem to walk hand in hand in this chorale of mishaps. While war is raging in Europe and frenzy is biting the air, Edgar and his daughters are desperately on the skids in L.A., wondering in what shoe the next nest egg will be buried. Happily, a sympathetic friend comes to the rescue. Francisco, an MGM makeup artist — “a big fat pile of pity for every stray dog” — is marginal himself: Hispanic, gay, with two sisters who happen to own a beauty parlor in Brooklyn. As Francisco tells it, his sisters have a bright idea for Edgar and Iris: Come to Brooklyn, reimagine yourself. We have the jobs for you.
So, times being what they are, off they all go, across the country again, pursuing the next American dream. Edgar will put on his best British accent and win the job the sisters have in mind: butler in the Brooklyn manse of rich New York businessman Joe Torelli. Iris will reinvent herself as the Torelli children’s governess. Little Eva, in a twist that could happen only in a Bloom novel, will become a tarot card reader in a humming little shop, telling nervous middle-aged ladies exactly what they want to hear.
It’s really not fair to tell you more — except to say that terrible things will happen. Love will fizz and fizzle, outrageous lies will be told, orphans will find happiness and heartbreak, and fate will sweep in to drive characters into hellish corners of the world.
In the course of this bighearted, rambunctious novel, you will run into the likes of Harpo Marx and Tallulah Bankhead. You will learn to care a tinker’s dam (no, not damn) about the characters who inhabit its pages. You will see that Eva is driven to look for mothers the way drunks look for bars. And you will trail this story like a cheery little tugboat, waiting for a confident captain to lead you from its dark places into the happy sun.
That captain is Amy Bloom, who wins you from the first with her narrative confidence. There are few American novelists writing today who can spin a yarn as winningly. Perhaps it helps that she once made her living as a psychotherapist, listening to people talk. And perhaps it was listening well that spurred her instincts for a well-told story.
If that is so, it may well be that Bloom is the best proof of the point she’s been making all along: that there is nothing so felicitous — or so American, for that matter — as our capacity to reinvent ourselves. Isn’t that why the fugitive from the Russian pogrom was lured here in the first place? Or Edgar Acton, with his posh English accent and cheating heart? Welcome to America, dear reader. Lucky us.
At 7 p.m. on Thursday, Amy Bloom will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
By Amy Bloom
Random House. 240 pp. $26