In the past decade, Haitian-born novelist Edwidge Danticat has earned a stellar reputation while also helping to popularize what could be called the American Literature of Immigration. Her 1996 debut, Krik? Krak!, an exhilarating story collection filled with the folklore of her homeland, was a National Book Award finalist; three novels followed, leading to her 2005 novel The Dew Breaker, which managed to be both emotionally wrenching and formally experimental -- no small feat. In that book, she wrote a series of stories swirling around a Haitian immigrant who, after years of deceit, tells his Americanized daughter that he isn't a prison escapee, as she had been led to believe, but rather a former prison guard who had routinely tortured inmates. It's a powerful work that, in a perfect world, would have made Danticat a fortune from residuals on a blockbuster movie.
But no, that's apparently too much to ask, and despite her impressive output, Danticat is hardly a household name in the United States. I doubt that her new book will remedy that oversight, since literary fame rarely results from producing memoirs, no matter how well crafted or compelling (OK, Mary Karr's The Liars' Club is an obvious exception). But well crafted and compelling Brother, I'm Dying surely is, to put it mildly.
Danticat starts with the day in 2004 when she found out she was pregnant and that her father, Andre, was dying. She visits him, and their individual lives start opening to the reader like a tropical flower. Andre had moved to the United States when Danticat was two, followed by her mother a couple of years later. Danticat stayed in Haiti till age 12, with Andre's brother Joseph, whose story then takes up much of the rest of the book. Joseph was a formidable man, a dedicated pastor much admired among his peers and congregation. Just as the author's father is preparing to die and she's close to giving birth, Joseph is forced, by outbreaks of violence in his town, to emigrate to the United States.
What happened next is unbelievable. The Homeland Security officers who interviewed Joseph in Miami thought he was lying about his need for temporary asylum. He collapsed during the interview and began vomiting, at which point a medic told the officers, "He's faking." He was shackled and put in a hospital where he received virtually no care, and died the next day. Welcome to the land of opportunity, mister black foreigner.
Danticat's story is unforgettable, but it's her writing that sticks in my memory. Her elegant style is wound tight here, almost to the point of snapping, pulsing with a tightly controlled anger that's never unleashed; mournful, yes, but also celebratory of the two men whose struggles she chronicles and their decades-long quest to keep family identity alive.
Brother, I'm Dying is a quick, albeit intense, read, charged with history and political drama that speaks eloquently, and movingly, to both the immigrant experience in America and the complexities of families anywhere in the world.
Mere Anarchy is a collection of 18 essays and sketches, 10 of which appeared previously in The New Yorker. Aside from one or two duds, they brim with Allen's patented literary shtick in which he mixes bits of Borscht Belt comedy with S.J. Perelman and then adds his own absurdist touches.
Favorites here include a man who attends a New Age retreat and learns how to levitate but then can't get back down; Mickey Mouse's testimony at the Michael Eisner/Michael Ovitz trial; and an author whose book is being sold in a country store, "remaindered in the kindling section." I also loved high-tone novelist Flanders Mealworm, who takes a job writing a novelization of a Three Stooges movie: "Calmly and for no apparent reason, the dark-haired man took the nose of the bald man in his right hand and slowly twisted it in a long, counterclockwise circle." But nothing tops Moe Bottomfeeder, a "Prayer Jockey" who writes prayers for people who feel they aren't eloquent enough for God. At one point, he explains that he's being sued because he sent the wrong prayer to a woman. "She wanted a little divine assistance to make her face work turn out swell, and I accidentally sent her a prayer for peace in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon pulls out of Gaza and she gets off the operating table looking like Jack LaMotta." If you think those examples are funny, then you'll love the book. If not, well, go buy yourself a sense of humor.