Blown Away

Consciously or not, our moment of involvement with a novel comes when as readers we buy into the character’s goals. These goals are often beyond our scope of our interests, as in Walter Tevis’s novel, “The Hustler,” which yanked us by the collar of empathy into the goal of a loser, “Fast Eddie” Felson, whose goal was to become the best pool hustler in America. Similarly, if you were to read a brief synopsis of any of the Ian Rankin police procedural mysteries featuring the Edinburgh cop, John Rebus, you would fail to see how Rankin was such a wildly popular novelist.

It is only when you pick up a copy of “The Hustler” or any of the John Rebus mysteries that the chemistry of narrative voice, character goals, and story takes hold. And just to make the point, although author Michael Connelly’s name has appeared on numerous bestseller lists, his fans are less taken by his narrative voice or writing style than they are swept along by his LAPD detective, Harry “Hieronymus” Bosch, in all his angst and yearning.

When you get both elements–a likeable and accessible character, presented in nuanced, lovely prose–there is nothing for it but sitting down and reading.

Lillian Leyb, the twenty-two-year-old protagonist of Amy Bloom’s new novel, “Away,” arrives penniless in New York in the mid-1920s, fleeing the pogroms in Russia and the horror of having her family killed. Mother. Father. Husband. Child. Gone. Her only survivor is Aunt Miriam, also widowed in this latest attack, who readily admits the lack of chemistry between them.

One of the basic denominators shared by all the characters in “Away” is the unvarnished agenda of the human, regardless of social station or physical condition. Aunt Miriam forces a letter containing the directions to the apartment of a cousin in Brooklyn. Two widows, one twenty-two, the other well into her forties. Go. Go to America. There is nothing for you here any more. Nothing, Lillian notes wryly except the home of her dead family, which Aunt Miriam has long coveted.

One of the basic denominators Amy Bloom brings to all her fiction, novels and short stories, is unvarnished compassion and empathy. Lesser writers may ply the same themes, the same wrenching adventures into the ways of love that Bloom travels, but they emerge sounding cynical, posturing, contrived. It is correct to visualize story as a crucible in which each character believes he is right; it is equally correct to note that Bloom’s agenda is to listen to them, sympathize with them, but not judge them.

It may seem at times that Amy Bloom is sharing the stage with Lillian Leyb, but closer reading shows what a remarkable, determined woman Lillian is and so the present-tense narrative emerges as a vibrant evocation of Lillian, pressing forward with the unrelenting goal of survival.

“There are one hundred and fifty girls lining the sidewalk outside the Goldfadn Theater. They spill into the street and down to the corners and Lillian Leyb, who has spent her first thirty-five days in this country ripping stitches out of navy silk flowers until her hands were dyed blue, thinks that it is like an all-girl Ellis Island: American-looking girls chewing gum, kicking their high heels against the broken pavement, and girls so green they’re still wearing fringed brown shawls over their braided hair.”

Lillian and her cousin, Judith, have joined the throng hopeful of one of the few seamstress jobs available at this highly popular theater, whose productions run the gamut from vaudeville and music hall to melodrama and Shakespeare.

At the moment, Lillian is sharing a bed with Judith, in the crowded apartment of the cousin Aunt Miriam sent her to. She is eager for work, eager to learn English, eager to get on with her life. Virtually thrusting herself to the front of the line of girls outside the Goldfadn Theater, she gets one of the jobs and soon finds herself recruited to be the mistress of the leading actor, a talented young man, tormented by a secret. Quickly she is seduced as well by the actor’s father, literally sharing the son’s apartment and bed with him. All the while she is polishing her English via the reading forced on her by Yaakov Shimmelman, the eccentric friend of the actor’s father, a man whose own losses equal those of Lillian.

At their first meeting, Shimmelman presents a calling card with a flourish:

YAAKOV SHIMMELMAN

Tailor, Actor, Playwright.

Author of “The Eyes of Love.”

Pants pressed and altered.

Lillian laughs when she reads the card and Shimmelman plays the situation out to the point where she feels that her laughter has insulted the best friend of her lover.

“I was teasing you. Of course it’s funny. It’s true, it’s absolutely tragic, but that does not make it any less funny. For people like us,” and he looks at her closely to see if she is people like him, and he seems satisfied, “that makes it even a little bit funnier.”

The printed endpapers of this short novel contain a map of North America, showing New York clearly marked, then a trail to Chicago, Fargo, Seattle, Vancouver, and up through the Yukon Territory to Dawson, from which it doglegs through Alaska and north toward Siberia.

This is a novel about movement, an emotional Diaspora that completely overwhelms and outperforms any thought of Lillian’s story being the cliché pathos of an emigrant finding herself in the Lower East Side of New York, struggling for job and identity against a background of theater and actual Yiddish rendition of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy.

Coming home one night, tired from work, thinking only of a bath, Lillian discovers a distant cousin, recently arrived from Russia, with news that Sophie, the daughter Lillian had given up for dead, is very much alive.

The rest of the novel has Lillian following the trail marked on the endpapers, and into a splendid and complex destiny of love, accommodation, and the magical sense of connection love can bring to people in ways they would never have suspected.

Because of the relative shortness, the pace picks up considerably when Cousin Raisele arrives. “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, ducking Lev Pinsky’s dry red paw. Sophie’s name is a match to dry red wood.”

Amy Bloom’s people are no less matches; they flare up with the bright blue flame of recognition. They are us as we search in the unconscionable darkness.