This is an immigrant story, without any boats or desert crossings, about America, without any apple pie or flag-waving. Told from the viewpoint of a young filmmaker, it follows the fortunes of the Golden house (a family and not their real name) whose patriarch has left behind a shady, dangerous life in south Asia. He and his 3 sons – with a ton of money – reinvent themselves in New York City, with mixed results.
The American-ness of the novel hit me on several levels. First, the idea that no matter what new or good thing one does, one’s past catches up. You see it here in the fate of Nero’s 3 sons, whose endeavors can’t escape the gravity of their father and his past; it’s seen in the U.S. in that whatever good we do in the world, we have a demon legacy gripping our ankles, constantly pulling us back. On another level, in the narrator’s perspective as a filmmaker (and actually, in Nero’s re-naming of himself and his sons using the names of Roman emperors), though you trust him overall, you have to wonder if a few scenes get massaged a little – maybe a dramatic cut here, a tweaking of the dialogue there – just to heighten the legend a bit. That seems very American to me. And even in the choice of time period, from the Obama era to the beginning of Trump’s administration (he’s referred to as The Joker), there is a feeling of moving from hope and confidence to a sudden shock of self-realization. This novel is as American as Chicago gangsters donating to the Chicago P.D. charity raffle.
This story always surprises and ultimately satisfies. The characters are like those intriguing folks at the fringe of your social circle: you never quite get to talk to them, but you can tell there’s something different about them. Even the ones you should hate – and do – have enough humanity that you want them to pull out of their nosedives, “I hope they figure it out” as opposed to “I hope they get what’s coming to them”. Though there are a few moments of magic in the novel, it’s a realistic view of America that uses the story of immigrants to catch us fumbling with our collection of masks.