When a top Lehman Brothers executive hires a barely documented Cameroonian immigrant as his chauffeur in the fall of 2007, neither has an inkling of the violently bumpy ride ahead. “Behold the Dreamers,’’ Imbolo Mbue’s irresistible debut, follows two families trying to achieve the 21st-century American Dream against the roller coastering background of a collapsing economy and a dysfunctional immigration system.
At first glance, exuberant striving immigrants Jende and Neni Jonga, hard-driving workaholic Clark Edwards, his brittle socialite wife, Cindy, and, especially, their son, Vince, who is giving up law school to seek “Truth and Love” in India, seem like a collection of stock characters. They inhabit a similarly familiar New York, where Jende and Neni live in “a roach-filled apartment in a Harlem neighborhood of fried chicken joints, storefront churches, and funeral homes,” and the view of Manhattan from Clark and Cindy’s Upper East Side living room is “a panorama of steel and concrete buildings.” Think “Brown Girl, Brownstones’’ meets “Bonfire of the Vanities.’’
But Mbue’s narrative energy and sympathetic eye soon render these commonplace ingredients vivid, complex, and essential. As “Behold the Dreamers’’ begins, Jende is “jubilant, bemused, incredulous” about his new job, and Neni “had, or was close enough to having, everything she’d ever wanted in life” — a husband and son, an apartment, a job as a home-health aide, and “a dream” of becoming a pharmacist, for which she is studying chemistry at a community college. Jende’s lawyer is optimistic about his pending application for asylum, and for now an Employment Authorization Document keeps his family in America.
Sadly, things change. Despite the hope embodied in President Obama’s 2008 election, when Jende and Neni “jumped all around the living room and shed euphoric tears that the son of an African now ruled the world,” economic, ethical, and emotional crises mount, though Mbue is careful to delineate between the privilege that cushions the Edwards family and Jende and Neni’s increasing desperation. And though her black characters provide practical and emotional succor to her white ones, especially as the two families further entwine, professionally and personally, she also effectively and pointedly keeps them at the center of the story, a narrative accomplishment too many white authors are still unable to achieve.
Immigration troubles, Lehman’s collapse, and the recession descend, as expected, but the plot takes a series of surprising turns, and character nuances emerge. Cindy’s backstory gives weight to her frustrations, and the tension between Clark’s strengths and weaknesses make him increasingly sympathetic. As Jende loses his resilience, Neni becomes fierce and independent. All four are united by their passionate desire for their children’s happiness, which, of course, is at the heart of the American Dream.
Yet even as Mbue dramatizes the hope embodied in that ideal, she also points to its inherent falsehoods, as dreams and deceit intersect. Wearing a clip-on tie that symbolizes dissimulation, Jende lies to Clark from the moment they meet. “[G]rateful half the truth had been sufficient,” he wonders how he could “convince Mr. Edwards that he was an honest man, a very honest man, actually, but one who was now telling a thousand tales to Immigration just so he could one day become an American citizen and live in this great nation forever?”
Characters lie to each other and force others into lies, and Lehman lies to the entire nation about the ultimately self-destructive financial machinations that are helping poor immigrants, among others, buy homes — a symbol at the heart of the golden promise that is America. At once critical and hopeful, “Behold the Dreamers’’ traces the political and economic systems that push individuals toward dishonesty, while also acknowledging the bad and affirming the good in their complicated personal choices. (That the novel’s men ultimately fare better than its women – indeed, fare better on the backs of their women – is, one presumes, a further indictment of gender systems.)
Donald Trump’s brief appearance is surely not coincidental. When Neni is inducted into an academic honor society, Jende’s cousin Winston takes her and her friend Fatou out for sushi. “[W]hat you gonno do when she become pharmacist?” Fatou asks. “He will take us to a restaurant at Trump Hotel,’’ Neni replies. “He will hire Donald Trump himself to cook steak for us.” Trump’s boasts about his success and malevolent attacks on immigrants are one response to the complexities of 21st-century America. This beautiful, empathetic novel offers a clear-eyed and loving alternative.
BEHOLD THE DREAMERS
By Imbolo Mbue
Random House, 382 pp., $28
Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.