The UnAmericans: Stories
Though they range over more than half a century and across territory that stretches from America to Ukraine to Israel, the Jewish characters in the eight stories of Molly Antopol’s impressive debut collection share a common predicament: In one way or another, they’re experiencing a sense of displacement, an alienation from those closest to them, their society, or both. Whether she’s portraying a former Czech dissident transplanted to the United States, or teenage girls --- one a Nazi-fighting partisan and the other a disgruntled Israeli coping with the sudden death of her mother --- Antopol, a Wallace Stegner Fellow who teaches creative writing at Stanford University, demonstrates the assurance of a much more seasoned writer in her variations on that theme.
What better examples of alienation could there be than the two stories preoccupied with the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, the tales linked most obviously to the collection’s title? Judy Mandlebaum, the teenage narrator of “Duck and Cover,” works as a waitress in a Los Angeles diner to help support her father, a labor organizer whose activities guarantee him a state of semi-permanent unemployment. After meeting a young man named Hal, whose family is building a crude backyard fallout shelter, she revels in the thought, as she contemplates the constricted existence her father’s choices have imposed on her, that “the doors of my life have already swung wide open, and there’s nothing he can do to kick them closed.” Instead, she realizes, when her father is arrested yet again, that “some choices are made for you and that’s that.” Alexi, the protagonist of “The Unknown Soldier,” is a Hollywood actor whose budding career “once on the brink of massive success, was suddenly in danger of being orbited into obscurity, blacklisted before the world had a chance to know he existed,” when he refuses to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
"Unstudied and possessed of a refreshing clarity, [Antopol's] stories are the work of a talent whose promising career, happily for us, is just beginning."
The three stories that take place in Israel all deal in some manner with intimate relationships. Oren, the narrator of “Minor Heroics,” saves the life of his brother after a tractor accident on their collective farm. Asaaf, the elder brother, is a soldier assigned to the occupied territories, his important, if unpleasant, duty overshadowing Oren’s menial service as a driver for an IDF lieutenant. The rescue sparks a dramatic role reversal that highlights Oren’s suppressed attraction for his brother’s girlfriend. “A Difficult Phase” tells the story of Talia, a former freelance journalist in Kiev, forced to return to her parents’ home in a suburb of Tel Aviv when she loses her job. A chance meeting with Tomer, a contractor whose wife recently has died, draws her into a family dynamic that revolves around Tomer’s 14-year-old daughter Gali, who’s experiencing the worst throes of adolescence. In “A Retrospective,” Boaz, an Israeli who has married an American woman, makes a fateful discovery about marital fidelity when he returns to Jerusalem on a family errand.
The collection’s most powerful story is “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story.” In it, 13-year-old Raya escapes her Belarus home just ahead of the Germans and joins a band of teenage partisans who call themselves the Yiddish Underground. In the process, she reconnects with 15-year-old Leon Moscowitz, the leader of the group and the man who will become her husband. As she recounts stories of his decisive leadership and of their dangerous exploits, her narrative slowly morphs into a wistful portrait of Leon’s surprising transformation in America after the war.
While most of these stories share a subdued tone, there are enough subtle shadings in their coloration that, when coupled with Antopol’s considerable skill at characterization, prevent a slide into monotony. She’s comfortable working within conventional story forms, and does that without virtuosic effects, content to allow the quiet competence of her well-constructed stories to speak for themselves. Antopol is adept at consistently finding precise images, small gestures that capture the full emotional range of her portraits. Talia excuses herself to make a phone call, “slipping down the hall so quietly it was as if she’d been replaced with a better version of herself.’ Her lover Tomer, in the process of sharing the story of his wife’s sudden death, “kept lifting his glass and setting it down, as if he could no longer remember its use.”
Near the end of the story “The Old World,” the narrator, a divorced, middle-aged American who has returned to Kiev for a honeymoon with his much younger bride, a native of Ukraine, wonders “how I had gotten here, halfway across the world to the city my grandfather had escaped, with a woman I barely knew.” That’s the kind of plaintive question that echoes through the lives of Molly Antopol’s characters. Unstudied and possessed of a refreshing clarity, her stories are the work of a talent whose promising career, happily for us, is just beginning.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on February 7, 2014