To see America through the eyes of immigrants is to see anew the nation’s promise — and the myriad ways in which that promise might be, and often has been, squandered. And if those immigrants are Nigerians set down in small-town Nebraska, as are the couple in Julie Iromuanya’s “Mr. and Mrs. Doctor,” what we see also says volumes about how humanity translates across the boundaries of color, gender and culture.

Translation is one of the levers of Iromuanya’s wonderful novel, which also puts to good use the storyteller’s tool kit of equivalences, false and true, inversions and reversals, all within a story that manages to make the most intimate idiosyncrasies and failures at once minutely, movingly real even as they map the comic and the tragic in a large and classical fashion.

These people, I mean to say, are the pawns of history and literature, but they are very much themselves: Job Ogbonnaya, a failed pre-med student at the University of Nebraska who buys his citizenship by marrying (and quickly divorcing) an impecunious American woman, and Ifi, an orphan raised by her Aunty and Uncle, who arrange her marriage to Job, and her move to America, 20 years later.

Nothing (perhaps predictably, but not to these big dreamers) is what either expected. Most disappointing — to both — is the truth about Job, not the doctor he pretends to be, but a certified nursing assistant and a linesman in a meatpacking plant, each day heading out to work in his white lab coat (stethoscope tucked showily in one pocket). When he is called upon to act this role, the results are pitifully comical (he prescribes a lot of Acid-o-mana-phin) and ultimately heartbreakingly terrible.

Ifi, confronted with Job’s shabby little apartment, constructs for the folks at home a mansion with a three-car garage and a “big-screen television with one thousand channels,” among other features cribbed from design magazines. This television, when Ifi’s letter home falls into Job’s hands, becomes a symbolic and comic icon muscled into the apartment and through the plot, magnifying and reflecting all the aspects of the American dream that never come in clearly on its cracked screen.

A slightly older Nigerian immigrant named Emeka, his magnificent wife, Gladys, and their family of girls; Job’s resurfacing “ex”; the son he eventually has with Ifi; their black American neighbors, and an officious gossip — all raise complications that multiply and intersect until the elaborate edifice of lies and dreams these characters inhabit begins to shake and tilt in ways that seem inevitable — but are no less hilarious and horrifying for that.

Oblivious as nature itself might be to the boundaries “Mr. and Mrs. Doctor” maps, the outlines of what separates the likes of Job and Ifi from happiness (“What is this talk of happy?” Ifi’s Aunty asks. “You have been in America too long, Mrs. Doctor”) become very stark indeed, and infinitely sad.

 

Novelist Ellen Akins teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives in Wisconsin.