A Good American by Alex George (Amy Einhorn Books; 387 pages; $25.95).
What does it mean to be a good American? Does such a concept exist or is it only a pipedream? Who decides anyway? And if you are an immigrant, how can you become a true American? These are all questions Alex George poses in his novel A Good American. At its heart, the book is a story of a family and their love for one another and for a place they call home. George, though, takes it further, giving us a distinctly American tale of immigrants. Their story is our story, too.
Love brings Frederick and Jette Meisenheimer to America. In Hanover, Germany, in 1903, Frederick first serenades Jette in a garden. Jette’s mother opposes the romance, to no avail. Then, Jette becomes pregnant and steals her grandfather’s medal given to him by the Kaiser. Frederick fears Jette’s mother will mistakenly believe he is the thief and turn him in to the authorities. Their solution is to leave Germany for America.
Their destination is New Orleans and not New York, which means the Meinsenheimers’ experience will be different from the usual one. Neither speaks a word of English. Frederick has never even heard of New Orleans, “That’s in America? The United States?” Jette assures him it does not really matter where they go: “New York, New Orleans, what’s the difference? They’re both New. That’s good enough.” While on the ship to New Orleans, Frederick and Jette marry and decide to settle in Missouri.
Once in New Orleans, Frederick explores what he can of the exotic American city. Frederick loves music, and the sounds of jazz lure him to a bar in the French Quarter. He has never heard jazz before and proclaims it “chaotic and loud, but full of hope and life.” It is, he believes, the “perfect new music for his new country.” So begins Frederick’s “rapturous love affair with America.” Whatever homesickness he may feel is “eradicated by his first excursion onto the streets of America. Everything he’d seen had been unimaginably different from the dry, dour streets of Hanover, and to his surprise he was not sorry in the slightest.” Frederick is absolutely “smitten by the beguiling otherness of it all.” His affair with his new country continues until the day he dies.
Frederick and Jette never reach their destination. Jette goes into labor in Beatrice, Missouri, and there they stay. In his adopted home city, Frederick sets out to be a good American. For Frederick, this means many things: learning English, being a good husband and a good father to Joseph and Rosa, and saving to buy the business where he works. He does all these things; Frederick buys a bar and turns it into a fine-dining establishment. For Frederick, being a good American also means fighting in World War I, against the country where he was born.
George writes A Good American with broad scope as he takes us from World War I to the present. He paints a portrait of a nation on the cusp of becoming a superpower. Interestingly, the same could be said of the Meisenheimers. As the family develops and grows, as each generation must answer the question of how to be a good American, the United States also changes and grows. The Meisenheimers and the United States come of age together. This concept is apparent in later generations of Frederick and Jette’s progeny. The restaurant Frederick is so proud of morphs in each generation, just as the country’s tastes change. Over the years, Frederick’s becomes a diner and then finally a Mexican restaurant. Although George never says it outright, I do feel he himself would never define what it means to be a good American.
In A Good American, George continues the family saga through to the present-day with James, the narrator, Joseph’s son. Two generations after Frederick and Jette, James is unconcerned about fitting into a country. He feels like he does not even fit in with his family; he thinks he is an outsider. He does not fit in with his boisterous brothers and would rather play chess instead. James is fond of his aunt and reading the novels of P.G. Wodehouse. A discovery later in his life leaves him reeling. I am left reeling, too, since George makes the reader feel like a part of the story. That is the beauty of A Good American: I feel as if I know these people; I feel as if the Meisenheimers are family.
Never before have I read a novel with such an interesting and hilarious cast of characters. In addition to the Meisenheimers, George introduces us to a preacher who believes he has witnessed the Second Coming, an evil bicycle-riding dwarf, and a young Harry Truman. As much as I love the character of Lomax, an African-American cornet player from New Orleans, I see him as too much of a “Bagger Vance” type character. Lomax helps Jette; he helps Rosa; he helps Joseph. Once he is no longer needed, the character exits the story. I, for one, think George could have done more with Lomax.
George writes A Good American with feeling and truth, perhaps partly because he is an immigrant, too. George lives, works, and writes in Missouri, but he was born in England. He moved to the United States in 2003 and has worked as a lawyer before becoming a writer.
At its heart, A Good American is an immigrant’s tale. The author is an immigrant, and the story is about a family of immigrants. George’s story is a tale that can be seen as representative of an idealized representation of emigration into the United States. George writes, “Almost every family living in the United States today has a story similar to this one somewhere in its past. Whether ten years ago or three hundred years ago, whether through due process or by way of a midnight ghosting across an unmanned border, whether by slave boat or luxury airplane, we all came here from somewhere.” No truer words were ever written.