'I Pity the Poor Immigrant': a bold, fascinating experiment in fiction

In Zachary Lazar’s dazzling novel, gangster Meyer Lansky’s deportation from Israel and investigation into death of a poet converge

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In “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” Zachary Lazar explores identity, the concept underlying his striking novel, through shifting narrators, shadowy characters and locales that embed specifics within ambiguous contexts. “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” is both murky and dazzling. It’s a bold, fascinating experiment.

To read this novel is to learn to follow threads as maddening as they are illuminating. It engages, then pulls back; hypnotizes, then distracts. As nonlinear as the equally dark Dylan song it name-checks, Mr. Lazar’s novel resonates long after you’ve read the last, determined page.

This tightly written book about the gangster Meyer Lansky, the writers David Bellen and Hannah Groff, the enigmatic go-between Gila Konig, and various problematic offspring visits unexpected places.

Being in those places can be uncomfortable, but never for long. These places, both geographical and psychological, are thought-provoking; and even though the novel ends with a kind of closure, it leaves you wondering.

By Zachary Lazar
Little, Brown and Company ($25).

A typographically varied blend of fiction, fact and speculation, “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” pivots like a trackball on Lansky, who fled to Israel in 1970 to avoid U.S. tax evasion charges.

While Israel’s “law of return” opens that country to any Jew, the exception is Jews with criminal records, and so Israel deported Lansky back to the United States two years later. Lansky was acquitted in 1974 and died in Miami Beach, capping a depressing spell Mr. Lazar details toward the end.

How open Israel is is part of the subtext as Groff burrows into the ostensible heart of the book, the death of the Israeli poet Bellen. Her probe leads her to ponder and avoid and investigate horror, and the religious fanaticism that bubbles under Israeli society.

Pairings animate the cumulative, prismatic text: Lansky and his palsied son, Buddy; Bellen and his junkie son, Eliav; Groff and her spiritual antecedent, Gila Konig, a waitress, a mistress and much more; and Groff and her father, an antiques dealer tainted by fraud. If the pairings aren’t enough in one time frame, they also cross generations.

Rarely has a book so opaque been so sexy. Its very opaqueness is its allure. Part of the reason it attracts/distracts is it’s simultaneously a crime story, a romance, even a travelogue. The state of Israel is an important character. One could also say the book is about writing and history:

“A woman goes on a journey — Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Tel Aviv, then back to New York,” Groff writes. “I thought I was covering the murder of an Israeli poet named David Bellen, investigating a straightforward crime story. But it became a story that led elsewhere, a story I would have no interest in if I hadn’t accidentally found myself inside it.”

Was Bellen’s death really a murder, or was it a suicide? Finding out drives Groff to sound out Konig, engage with Oded Voss, her volatile lover, and learn to live with her painfully overdeveloped talent: empathy.

“I smiled at Gila the way I sometimes cry at a movie that isn’t really sad,” Groff writes of encountering a cancerous Konig in her early 70s when Groff herself was 12. She continues, “Because I write for a living, people I don’t know or hardly know have frequently approached me on the slimmest of pretexts to set down their life stories. … they come to me with secrets that no longer seem to be important enough to be ashamed of.”

History, in Mr. Lazar’s gifted hands, becomes timeless.

Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.

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