As I approach my 27th birthday, I’ve started to realize I can’t eat crap food everyday. At lunch time, I’ve excised the Chipotle burritos for salad made at home. I’ve switched out the faux healthy Honey Bunches of Oats for some bland fiber heavy cereal. I’ve even started taking Metamucil every morning. Gone are empty calories. Food with nothing in it has become persona non grata. In a lot of ways, Francine Prose’s My New American Life is the literary equivalent of empty calories.
Now that isn’t to say the book isn’t good. It has the feel of a well-done summer books that your parents use to take to the pool or beach and read as they hung out with your stuff. Maybe it was that the novels I read before and after My New American Life were exceptionally powerfully. Still, as I look back at Prose’s novel, I can’t shake an empty feeling. A feeling that leaves me wondering if this book really deserved to be selected as one of the top 50 pieces of fiction from 2011.
The titular new life in America is Lula’s, a twenty-something from Albania who landed in Manhattan’s Lower East Side with fellow Albanian Dunia. After working as a waitress at one of those Tex-Mex places better known for their large servings of alcohol and even larger groups of intoxicated New Yorkers, Lula is hired by Mr. Stanley to be a live in babysitter for his teenage son Zeke, and in some ways to him as well.
Mr. Stanley and Zeke find themselves living in a spacious house in Baywater, New Jersey in the wake of Mrs. Stanley going away on Christmas Eve. Originally a professor, Mr. Stanley was lured to Wall Street by big money and the belief that he could help the little guy. While the former happened, the latter never materialized. Set in 2005, he tells others about an impending economic crisis that sounds a lot like a laundry list of what happened in 2008. The other key player in this superficially placid suburban setting is Mr. Stanley’s friend, Don. A big shot lawyer whose specialty is immigration, he is also investigating ongoing detainee practices at Guantanamo Bay, and is working to get Lula in the country permanently.
Then all hell brakes loose and the novel sounds as grounded in reality as the Albanian fairytales Lula passes off as her own creative writing to Mr. Stanley and Don. While Zeke is at school and Mr. Stanley is at work, Lula is visited by three Albanian wanna-be mobsters who are nothing more than small-time thugs. After she lets them into the house, they ask her to hide a gun for them. The three of them – Alvo, the leader, Guri, and Genti – continue to visit her. She starts to fall for Alvo and when she notices signs that someone has been in the house while she is out, she hopes it’s Alvo in an effort to see her. In an evening that includes Alvo and Lula attending an Albanian concert in a Bronx warehouse, as well as the return of Mrs. Stanley, and her subsequent departure, the story reaches its most incredulous.
All of this is happening around Zeke, an uninspired teenager doing everything he can to avoid college. Eventually his father forces him to visit a college and the sequence of events during that trip nearly matche the night of Albanians in the Bronx and Mrs. Stanley back in Baywater.
Inevitably, the lies Lula has been spinning about everything from her short stories to her efforts to get Don to aid Alvo during his legal troubles are brought to light. Her hand is forced and she must find another way to keep her new American life going. Enter Dunia, whom Lula had assumed had been kidnapped. Turns out she hit the jackpot and married a plastic surgeon who lives in New Jersey. And the way that subplot is resolved feels like it was ripped from the id of a reality show producer who spends their day creating “reality” for suburban dimwits on cable channels you didn’t know you had.
The book ends with Lula on the George Washington Bridge. In traffic. In an SUV. The how she got there and the where she is going are just as improbable as the rest of the story.
Maybe it’s the suburbs or Jersey. I’ve never really lived in the suburbs and though I’ve spent a serious amount of time in the Garden State, maybe that is how things happen for some folks who make their lives in towns like Summit, villages named Baywater or other locales plastered on exit signs on the highways that lace through the state like veins. Or, maybe, the whole book is one big tall tale told written by Prose, told by some unseen and unknown narrator that has as much basis in reality as Lula’s Albanian fairy tales. Maybe.