NancyKay Shapiro Recommends

I found Lore Segal’s strikingly unique debut novel Her First American through the process of judging a book by its cover: the hardcover and early paperback editions were decorated with a detail from a Reginald Marsh painting of passengers in a New York City El Car. Attracted as I am to all things New York (and a fan of Marsh), I picked up the book at a library, and immediately fell head-first into the vividly disoriented and disorienting worldview of its young Viennese heroine, the WWII refugee Ilka Weissnix:

Ilka had been three months in this country when she went West and discovered her first American sitting on a stool in a bar in the desert, across from the railroad. He was a big man. He bought her a whiskey and asked her what in the name of the blessed Jehoshaphat she was doing in Cowtown, Nevada.
“Nevada?” Ilka had said. “I have believed I am being in Utah, isn’t it?”

The man Ilka meets at that railway café is Carter Bayoux, a middle-aged black intellectual with ties to the brand-new United Nations. At that first encounter, she has no frame of reference for Carter–she doesn’t understand that he’s black, let alone what that means in America. Once back in New York, where much of the novel’s action takes place, we watch through Ilka’s point of view as, via her burgeoning affair with Carter, she learns from scratch about what it is to be a displaced Jew, a real New Yorker, a woman in love with a fascinating, depressive and self-destructive man, and a member of a loose-knit circle of African-American and Jewish activists in the 1950s civil rights movement whose assumptions of comradeship are constantly undermined by implicit racism, anti-Semitism, suspicion and resentment.

All of which makes this book sound like a chore, when in fact it’s full of frequently hilarious conversations and set-pieces (the whole section at the summer cottage peopled by a seething variety of inter-racial couples is indescribably rich and strange and feels absolutely true to life) as it unfolds a tender love story of unpredictable complexity.

I’ve never found characters in fiction anything like Carter, Ilka, and their circle in Her First American. Ilka’s alien point of view on post-war America alternates with that of Carter, down-trodden and all-too-familiar with the daily grinding oppression that sends him to the bottle. As Ilka becomes an American, and rises into a better position in life, Carter inexorably sinks. Through Ilka and Carter, Segal juxtaposes the combined struggles of two dispossessed minorities, even as she unflinchingly and mournfully illustrates their ultimate inability to really communicate with one another.

NancyKay Shapiro is a writer in New York City. Her novel, What Love Means To You People, was published by Thomas Dunne in March 2006.