Molly Antopol's debut collection of eight stories, set in the United States and Israel, offers an intense look at "what we do when we are lost." In "The UnAmericans," her characters have lost familiar guideposts: a loving marriage, a mother tongue, a sense of self-respect. With a wonderful ear for dialogue and a knack for creating unpredictable but credible story lines, Antopol explores the resilience of her bereft characters and navigates the blank spaces that lie between them.
Often her stories center on needy — if likeable — people trying to pretend that culture doesn't matter. In "The Old World," a well-to-do Long Island dry cleaner is attracted, then married, to a Ukrainian woman he barely knows. Solution: honeymoon in Kiev? In another story, Tomas, one of the heroes of 1960s Czech resistance to the state security police, is lionized as "the quietest man." Later, when his fame leads him to a teaching position at a small college in New England, he finds this comes with a cost: political irrelevance, divorce and an uncertain relationship with his estranged daughter.
"The Unknown Soldier" presents a remarkably thorny case of cultural mistaken identity, as Alexi (Alex in high school) polishes a Russian persona to advance his film career. The year, however, is 1950, and Cold War hysteria is peaking. While Alexi is thoroughly apolitical, interested only in his personal success, his brief stardom playing a heroic Russian makes him a focus of the anti-Communist witch hunts. Antopol has done her research, and this story, like several other stories set in the past, feels right.
Antopol also makes use of generational divides as the older generation seeks commitment from the children — but commitment to what? Many of the children in these stories have divorced parents who are themselves seeking some sort of road map of the future. Her adults express passion for work and politics that precludes passion for other people, and we hear one lost young man thinking that "he couldn't think of a word to describe this kind of loneliness, so scary and real it required a different kind of language, new and strange and yet to be invented."
Not all of the stories are so despairing. Antopol mercifully extends a lifeline to some of her characters and hints at the possibility of rescue. The characters' directness, their intensity, even their emotional neediness manage to be appealing. Credit the rich, inviting language of a splendid young writer.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.