'Other Americans' Take Center Stage In A Timely New Novel

Apr 1, 2019
Originally published on April 3, 2019 8:37 am

Laila Lalami's new novel is called The Other Americans and it's likely to jump start some timely book group discussions about the American experiment; specifically, about how different types of people feel less visible in this country because of their ethnicity, class, race or citizenship status.

The Other Americans is an ambitious political novel that relies on old-fashioned storytelling to get its messages across. Lalami conjures up a murder mystery, a cross-cultural romance, an immigrant saga, war stories and family dramas. Every short chapter here is narrated by a rotating cast of characters, each of them sealed off from one another by misunderstanding and sometimes justifiable fear.

All of this makes for a somewhat ungainly novel, and, yet, whenever these separate stories intersect and the characters find common ground, the effect is heartening: You feel like the promise of America can still come through after all.

Like so many other American novels, from The Great Gatsby to The Bonfire of the Vanities and beyond, The Other Americans uses the device of a car accident to throw together characters who wouldn't otherwise run into each other.

Late one night, a Moroccan immigrant named Driss Guerraoui closes up his diner in a small town in the Mojave Desert. He starts to cross a darkened intersection to get to his car when he's fatally hit by another car that doesn't stop.

We hear the account of Driss' death secondhand, from his youngest daughter, Nora. Nora is a jazz composer who's moved to Oakland to separate herself from her family, particularly her Old World mother who thinks she has "her head in the clouds" and should become a dentist like her older sister.

There's one witness to the hit-and-run, an undocumented man who's terrified of coming forward and being deported to Mexico. But it's another man — a sheriff's deputy named Jeremy, who's also an Iraq War vet and a former classmate of Nora's — who finally cracks the case in a completely unexpected turn of events. Along the way, Jeremy becomes attracted to Nora and she, sort of, reciprocates. As Nora observes, death has a way of "disturb[ing] long-established patterns."

That's a very quick aerial view of the sprawling plot here. One of the only things that unites these various characters is that they all feel squeezed economically. Sometimes that frustration sours into resentment of the other. That greasy spoon diner, for instance, that the hardworking Driss owned and turned into a tourist attraction, sits next to another relic of Americana, a dilapidated bowling alley, owned by an old white guy who's predictably bitter that the 1950s have come and gone and left him in the dust.

The owner of the bowling alley is undeniably a stereotype, but Lalami works hard to complicate most of the other characters here, in particular, ensuring that no one, not even the murder victim, is eligible for sainthood.

Lalami's last novel, The Moor's Account, was celebrated for its mastery of voice, specifically that of its main character, a 16th century Moroccan slave. By allotting what amount to soliloquies to so many disparate characters in The Other Americans, Lalami ups the ante here, with uneven results.

For instance, Jeremy's descriptions of his romantic feelings for Nora, his wonderment about the way "love could crack you open, [and] make you bare your deepest self ..." is the kind of pre-fab declaration you hear in a Hallmark movie.

But, Nora, our main and most textured character, speaks with a spare, angry authenticity. Late in the novel, she's accepted to a prominent music festival; when she arrives she's promptly mistaken for another darker-skinned woman and, then, one of the wait staff. Nora tells us:

For years, I had wanted to be included in one of these prestigious venues, and now that I had finally been admitted into one, I felt out of place.

I was caught between the contradictory urges of running away ... and proving myself ...

Should I stay or should I go? That's one of the core questions Lalami's characters ask themselves, in relation to their jobs, their families and America itself. What The Other Americans lacks in artistic consistency, it makes up for in narrative energy and political engagement. Speaking as a reader, that's more than enough to make me stay.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Laila Lalami's historical novel "The Moor's Account" was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Her latest novel, "The Other Americans," is a story that's very much of this historical moment. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Laila Lalami new novel is called "The Other Americans," and it's likely to jumpstart some timely book group discussions about the American experiment, specifically about how different types of people feel less visible in this country because of their ethnicity, class, race or citizenship status. "The Other Americans" is an ambitious political novel that relies on old-fashioned storytelling to get its messages across. Lalami conjures up a murder mystery, a cross-cultural romance, an immigrant saga, war stories and family dramas.

Every short chapter here is narrated by a rotating cast of characters, each of them sealed off from one another by misunderstanding and sometimes justifiable fear. All of this makes for a somewhat ungainly novel. And yet whenever these separate stories intersect and the characters find common ground, the effect is heartening. You feel like the promise of America can still come through after all.

Like so many other American novels from "The Great Gatsby" to "The Bonfire Of The Vanities" and beyond, "The Other Americans" uses the device of a car accident to throw together characters who wouldn't otherwise run into each other. Late one night, a Moroccan immigrant named Driss Guerraoui closes up his diner in a small town in the Mojave Desert. He starts to cross a darkened intersection to get to his car when he's fatally hit by another car that doesn't stop. We hear the account of Driss' death secondhand from his youngest daughter, Nora. Nora is a jazz composer who's moved to Oakland to separate herself from her family, particularly her old-world mother who thinks she has her head in the clouds and should become a dentist like her older sister.

There's one witness to the hit-and-run - an undocumented man who's terrified of coming forward and being deported to Mexico. It's another man named Jeremy, a sheriff's deputy, Iraq war vet, and former classmate of Nora's, who finally cracks the case in a completely unexpected turn of events. Along the way, he becomes attracted to Nora, and she sort of reciprocates. As Nora observes, death has a way of disturbing long-established patterns.

That's a very quick aerial view of the sprawling plot here. One of the only things that unites these various characters is that they all feel squeezed economically. Sometimes that frustration sours into resentment of the other. That greasy-spoon diner, for instance, that the hard-working Driss owned and turned into a tourist attraction sits next to another relic of Americana - a dilapidated bowling alley owned by an old white guy who's predictably bitter that the 1950s have come and gone and left him in the dust. He's undeniably a stereotype, but Lalami works hard to complicate most of the other characters here, in particular ensuring that no one, not even the murder victim, is eligible for sainthood.

Lalami's last novel, "The Moor's Account," was celebrated for its mastery of voice, specifically that of its main character, a 16th century Moroccan slave. By allotting what amount to soliloquies to so many disparate characters in "The Other Americans," Lalami ups the ante here with uneven results. For instance, Jeremy's descriptions of his romantic feelings for Nora, his wonderment about the way love could crack you open and make you bare your deepest self, is the kind of prefab declaration you hear in a Hallmark movie.

But Nora, our main and most textured character, speaks with a spare, angry authenticity. Late in the novel, she's accepted to a prominent music festival. When she arrives, she is promptly mistaken for another darker-skinned woman and then one of the wait staff. For years, Nora tells us, I had wanted to be included in one of these prestigious venues, and now that I had finally been admitted into one, I felt out of place. I was caught between the contradictory urges of running away and proving myself.

Should I stay, or should I go? That's one of the core questions Lalami's characters ask themselves in relation to their jobs, their families and America itself. What "The Other Americans" lacks in artistic consistency it makes up for in narrative energy and political engagement. Speaking as a reader, that's more than enough to make me stay.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Other Americans" by Laila Lalami. On tomorrow's show - the deepening crisis in Venezuela, where desperate shortages of food, electrical power and medicine have compelled an estimated 3 million people to leave the country, many on foot. We'll speak with The New York Times' Nick Casey about the political standoff in the country, the U.S. role in the conflict and the prospects for change - hope you can join us.

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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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