The American Mirage: Immigrant or “Un-American?”

By Francis Khairallah Noble

In the House UN-AmericanBy Benjamin Hollander
By Benjamin HollanderClockroot Books, 2013
Clockroot Books, 2013

“In the House UN-American” is about tribes, how they differ and whether it’s possible to become a member of one you weren’t born into. Carlos ben Carlos Rossman, a Puerto Rican Jew (a double-pronged tribe!) lands in New York Harbor in 1950. As he wanders among Americans and “Un-Americans,” he learns that, despite the mythology, there is not one America – it’s a big country with diverse people in many regions who have different religions, politics, and practices, which are not universally accepted. There are Americans and there are “Un-Americans.”

Carlos observes the rituals of American society with eyes not blinded by familiarity; he sees their ironies, he sees the distance between the fables which sustain and define the national personality and the “facts on the ground.” He deconstructs the word and cultural associations that have become automatic and unconscious for the American, noting that language can change reality: if you change your name, you can change who you are. He also knows that language can give you away, that “common idioms turn against them (the UN-Americans) one phrase at a time.”

Like other immigrants, Carlos brings his native culture with him, including matters he didn’t experience firsthand. He’s never met a Nazi, but he lives with them through his family’s memory. History and language follow him to the New World. You try to belong – to shake off some of that inheritance – but you overcompensate. You don’t quite know how to do it. When Carlos’ father buys him a baseball bat so he can participate in the great American pasttime, the bat is green, unlike the plain pine bats of the other kids, so he is further ostracized.

Hoffman tells this story in a series of mirages, fables, cultural references, memories, poems, conversations, episodes. The format is satisfying, utterly original, and difficult to convey. It is simultaneously absurd, funny, true, and touching. Hollander manages to communicate in a linear statement a complex three-dimensional mosaic of  Carlos’ America, revealing in the process that both Carlos and the country are changing and changing each other.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, no. 66

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