Had it not gone out of business the Betsy Ross Diner, the real-life greasy spoon where Xhenet Aliu sets much of her debut novel, might have been one of these folksy locales sought by national news reporters trawling for “real Americans” in the wake of Trump’s victory. Known by many for its late-night cheeseburgers and by some for its parking-lot brawls, the Betsy Ross stood next to a gas station in Waterbury, Conn. — Aliu’s hometown, nicknamed “The Brass City” in the 19th century for its monopoly on international brass and copper production. In “Brass,’’ as in life, those factories are long gone, and Waterbury has become a part of the Nutmeg State’s burgeoning rust belt.
“When the last of the brass mills locked up their doors,” the novel begins, “it seemed all they left behind were blocks of abandoned factories that poked out from behind stone gates like caskets floated to the surface after the Great Flood of ’55.”
As expected, the dearth of economic opportunity in this floating-casket town presents some serious limitations for its ambitious residents. “Brass’’ follows two of them in two different decades: 19-year-old Elsie, whose narrative takes place in the 1990s, and her daughter, Luljeta, in the present day. Each chapter switches between their perspectives to tell stories of tragic loss, strained family ties, migration across great distances, and dreams deferred. The end result is an exceptional debut novel, one that plumbs the notion of the American Dream while escaping the clichés that pursuit almost always brings with it.
The story begins as Elsie has just about given up on escaping dead-end Waterbury. Instead of speeding away in a “wicked coupe,” she has taken a job waitressing at the Betsy Ross, where she wears a “sweatbox polyester uniform” for “jingle-change tips.” A hunky, persistent Albanian line cook named Bashkim has captured her attention. This hairy man, whose voice “started so far back in his throat that every word smacked of laryngitis,” has an accent even worse than that of Elsie’s Lithuanian grandparents, dreams of becoming wealthy through murky investments in his recently capitalist nation of origin, and a wife, Agnes, trapped a place plagued by “dictators and Communism and plastic sandals worn with mismatched tube socks.”
Bashkim and Elsie engage in an impoverished courtship that takes place in laundromats, the Betsy Ross parking lot, and its meat freezer. Elsie gets pregnant, of course, and her morning sickness is almost as miserable as life in Albania — as are her alcoholic mother and her sister, Grace, a studious girl who compulsively pulls out her hair, strand by strand.
Luljeta’s story starts long after Bashkim has departed for places unknown and immediately after NYU rejects her college application, all but dashing her hopes of escaping the grind of lower-middle-class life in Connecticut. By this time, Grace has fled to New York; Grandma Mamie has put away countless bottles of Blue Nun; and Elsie has found a modest career and a boyfriend who teaches at a community college. But Lulujeta is filled with aimlessness and despair that she’ll never transcend her fate as the “latest in a line of fatherless daughters, [a] lifelong recipient of free school lunches.”
Luljeta alights on a solution: She’ll hunt down her missing father, a man she describes as “the one you’ve decided you can’t live without, the one who will make you make sense, the one whose failures of both nature and nurture constitute the sloppy human pieces you’ve attempted to assemble into a functional unit.” Her search begins at the Betsy Ross.
Through the voices of her dueling protagonists — both aces at deploying gallows humor and inventive cuss words, both mordant observers of personal failings and frightful pain — Aliu delivers a living, breathing portrait of places left behind.
Will Luljeta find Bakshim? Will she learn what drove her parents apart? Will she escape her floating-casket town for bigger opportunities, shed the misery of the generations that came before? Perhaps Waterbury can offer some salvation after all.
“Every step I’d taken so far was a stumble,” Elsie observes. She’s talking about herself, but she might as well be talking about American immigration. “[Y]et look what I produced. . . something so better than any of its sources that it was a miracle as grand as the Virgin’s, or else evolution taking place before my very eyes.”
By Xhenet Aliu
Random House, 304 pp., $27
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Eugenia Williamson is a Chicago writer and editor.