TERRY GROSS, host:
Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review of Dinaw Mingestu's new novel, "How to Read the Air." Mingestu is named one of the 20 writers under 40 to watch by The New Yorker magazine, where some of his fiction has been published. His first novel, "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," received the Los Angeles Times First Book Award and was named a New York Times Notable Book. Maureen says Mingestu's winning streak is still going strong.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: In his 1988 memoir called simply "A Life," the controversial director Elia Kazan told a World War II story I've always wanted to believe is true. Kazan wrote that he was present in 1945 on the Pacific island of Biak when his newly released film "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" was shown to a battle-scarred audience of American soldiers and nurses. The movie was projected on an outdoor screen in the rain at night, and the audience was rapt despite planes circling overhead and the other noises of war. In the middle of the movie, the film reel broke and Kazan recalled that a great groan of disappointment erupted from the audience before the film was fixed and the show continued.
The next morning, rumor went around the base that some Japanese soldiers still at large on the island had climbed to the top of a nearby hill and also had watched the movie. I guess they groaned too when the film broke. After all, everybody loves a good tear-jerker about immigrants and promises just out of reach.
Of course, they don't make them like that anymore. The stories and memoirs written by newer waves of immigrants to America - writers like Julia Alvarez, Junot Diaz and Gish Jen - commute back and forth between the old world and the new, while the immigrant community, unlike�Kazan's lively Brooklyn streets, is much less sentimentalized and more fragmented and mobile.
Add to this canon of ambivalent new chroniclers of the dream of America, Dinaw Mingestu, who was born in Ethiopia, immigrated to the United States as a child, and educated at Georgetown University, where somehow he managed to avoid taking any of my courses. I don't know him, but I do know some of his work.�Mengestu has just published his second novel, "How to Read the Air," and it's a sad stunner of a meditation on the illusory idea of asylum.
Mengestu's main character, Jonas Woldemariam, is not even at home in his own skin, let alone in his adopted home of New York City. A first-generation American, Jonas grew up in the Midwest, the only child of Ethiopian refugees who barely spoke to each other during the decades of their troubled marriage. Jonas says about his family that what we were was something closer to a jazz trio than a family, a performance group that got together every now and then to play a few familiar notes before dispersing back to their real private lives.
Jonas has earned a hard-knocks advanced degree in alienation. He works, first, at an immigrant aid society, later he gets a job teaching composition at a snooty prep school in Manhattan. The hasty marriage that Jonas has embarked on with a lawyer at the aid society is falling apart. As it does, Jonas keeps thinking back on his family legacy of rootlessness - his parents' transplanted lives in Peoria, Illinois, and before that his father's rough exodus from Ethiopia to Europe, sealed in a box smuggled aboard a cargo ship. The narrative jumps around restlessly among all these timeframes, but the description Jonas relates secondhand of his father's odyssey is especially evocative...
In Italy my father was given asylum and set free. He met dozens of men along the way, men who promised him that when they made it to London, the rest of their lives would finally resolve into the picture they imagined. It's different there, they always said. For most, that place of difference was London; for a few it was Paris; and for a smaller but bolder few, America. That faith had carried them thus far, and even though it was weakening, and needed constant readjustment - Rome is not what I thought it would be, France will surely be better - it persisted out of sheer necessity. By the time my father finally made it to London, he had begun to think of all the men he met as being crippled and deformed by their dreams.
At the three-hankie end of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," Francie Nolan and her kid brother look out from their tenement rooftop to the skyline of Manhattan. They're certain that a bright American future is theirs, just over the bridge. In Dinaw Mengestu's beautifully written and wearier update of the coming-to-America story, refugees and their offspring cross a lot of bridges, but none of them ever find the clean well-lighted place of their dreams. It seems that the wanderers in this novel are destined to be a country unto themselves.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "How to Read the Air," by Dinaw Mengestu.