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American Jews question identity in powerful short-story collection

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/3/2014 (1103 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The UnAmericans is the first collection of stories by American writer Molly Antopol, a creative-writing professor and recipient of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 Author Award.

It's a powerful, cogent, absorbing debut. The stories range in time from Europe during the Secord World War, to the America of the 1950s where the Red Scare holds sway, to contemporary America and Israel.

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The title of the collection initially seems puzzling, yet as you read these stories of American Jews, it makes sense; there's an uneasy tension between the characters' American loyalty and the always-present pull of Israel and encounters with Israeli Jews often struggling with the dominance of their Russian background.

Many of the characters in the stories are displaced; not only the suspect communists in two of the stories (including The Unknown Soldier, the best of the collection), but also the comfortable intellectuals and artists who appear in many of the others.

Political alliances in America in the 1950s added to the alienation many Jews felt in that society. In The Unknown Soldier, Alexi, an actor, is on the brink of stardom and becomes part of a group of communist sympathizers in Hollywood to advance his career in a Soviet-friendly film. He's subsequently destroyed after the war by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Naming names didn't help either. After his release from prison, he takes what is likely a final trip with his 10-year-old son, Benny, reluctantly allowed to go by Alexi's embittered ex-wife, who was collateral damage in the whole business.

In the same way he played the part of a good leftist for the director who hired him for the film The Unknown Soldier, Alexi realizes he is performing the part of a good father for his son.

The son's precocity, which includes shoplifting wine (albeit for a good cause), scares Alexi. In the end, Alexi sees only his son's implacable honesty, as Benny pulled "the bottle from his shirt... thrusting (it) at his father: terrified, astonished, ready for love."

These same feelings haunt the contemporary stories of doubtful love affairs, rough marriages and betrayals between individuals, and show how uneasy a shared history is for all people.

In A Difficult Phase, Talia, an under-employed American journalist stuck in Tel Aviv, has a brief affair with an affable Israeli, whose daughter uses her as an ally against him. She realizes, when she understands what is happening, that she is no longer young -- playing at adulthood stops, and becomes real. When the daughter is hurt, Talia has no words of comfort, "no guarantee things would ever get easier."

In the masterly Perspectives, Boaz, an Israeli, marries into the formidable Kaplan family, whose legendary matriarch Eva has accumulated a famous art collection over the decades, including pieces she smuggled out of the Soviet Union. While the rest of the family resides in the United States, Eva remains in Israel.

Though Boaz becomes estranged from Mira, his wife (and one of Eva's granddaughters), he is sent as representative to the museum to which Eva's collection is promised. Mira's split feelings between Boaz, solid and unknowable, and her open, daring lover serves as a quiet symbol of the divided self American Jews feel between America and Israel. They discover, in a stunning scene, that Eva's trajectory was the same between her own husband and lover.

With her effortless style and empathetic eye, Antopol reveals a splendid talent, making the personal struggles of one group manifest and clear to all.

Some critics have invoked Saul Bellow and Philip Roth in discussing Antopol; this collection shows that comparison isn't out of place.

 

Rory Runnells is the artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights.

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Updated on Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 8:12 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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