In his sophomore volume of short fiction, David Bezmozgis deepens his exploration of the fates and furies that beset Jewish immigrants as they struggle with the unwieldy claims of the past. Replete with the wry humour and finely hewn prose that characterized the author’s debut, Natasha and Other Stories, this new collection resonates with power and poignancy.
The superb title story, told in the first person by a 40ish writer, begins with a literal crash: the narrator wrecks the door of his car. Craving a cheap, fast fix, he finds a replacement on the internet from a Mohamed of Rexdale. He and his preschool daughter, Nora, make the trip to the Toronto suburb, where there are “few representatives of white privilege.” They arrive at a Somali neighbourhood and the writer’s own childhood rears up unbidden. There are the overcrowded apartment buildings “thrumming with life and larceny.” Mohamed’s wife gives Nora an unexpected gift – a hijab – which the girl refuses to take off. This story is ultimately a love song to Toronto, an immigrant city where “a white man with a car door and a daughter wearing a blue hijab attract less attention than you might expect.”
Another standout is “Little Rooster.” After the narrator – another writer – discovers a cache of Yiddish letters penned by his late grandfather, he tracks down the daughter of a woman with whom his grandpa may have had an affair. Though the writer now lives a comfortable life, he is cast back to his family’s struggles: “Boxcars rolled to the east and west. A commissar and an SS officer shouted orders in a hoarse voice. A crow landed on a corpse.” He finds himself morphing into his older male relatives: “It was as if some primordial Jewish oy-face had surfaced … as from the headwaters of the biblical patriarchs.”
“A New Gravestone for an Old Grave” is a cross between a Feydeau farce and a Kafkaesque tale. At his father’s obsessive bidding, Victor returns to Riga, the place of his birth, to oversee the installation of a new stone for his grandfather’s grave. Victor faces what his life might have been had his family remained in Latvia, with mishaps and adventures along the way.
All the stories in Immigrant City are tragicomedies in the vein of the late, great Bernard Malamud, whose influence is evident in the need for adversaries to co-operate and in the living power of the past, which can never be laid to rest. Four-year-old Nora sums up a core theme of the collection. She and her father are on the streetcar returning from their visit to Rexdale. Her father says, “Nora, it’s our stop. Do you want to go home or keep going?” “Go home and keep going,” she replies, echoing the union of opposing desires immigrants experience throughout their lives.