Nothing is quite what it seems to be in Lucky Us, a story of survival in '40s-era America.
Lucky UsPublisher: Random House
Length: 256 pages
Author: Amy Bloom
Publication date: 2014-07
One of Amy Bloom’s favorite novels is At Freddie’s, by Penelope Fitzgerald. Few people read Fitzgerald here in the States, and fewer still read this particular novel. It’s about a school for child-actors in England, and it’s set in the middle of the 20th century.
The head of the school is a domineering old lady named Freddie, who always seems to be at least slightly dishonest. And it becomes clear, very quickly, that the novel isn’t simply about play-acting; it’s also about the small lies that all of us tell, on a daily basis, to get through life. Most, if not all, of us are “actors”; we bluff our way through tricky situations. Perhaps the only people who aren’t required to practice the art of deception on a regular basis are infants and small children.
It’s not a surprise that this book appeals to Bloom. Deception has been one of her major themes for the past two decades. In interviews, she often mentions the gap between speech and thought—a gap that tends to be the source of much of the comedy and drama in any person’s life. Bloom began her career as a therapist, and so she is especially interested in the lies we tell one another, and in the lies we tell ourselves.
You’ll see a great deal of play-acting in Bloom’s new book, Lucky Us, her third novel. Eva, the protagonist, has a mother whose partner enjoys a double life. When this partner’s actual wife dies, Eva’s mother decides to “see what’s in it for us.” (Giving and taking are also prominent among Bloom’s literary interests.) When Eva’s mother grows bored with her partner, she disappears. She leaves Eva to be raised by a father whose intentions aren’t always pure.
It’s not all bad, living a motherless existence in Ohio. (Yes, we’re in Ohio—and, by the way, it’s the early '40s.) Eva meets Iris, a slightly older girl who is the product of Eva’s father’s copulations with his actual (and now-dead) wife.
Iris has ambition. She wants money and fame. She begins working with Eva to win monetary prizes at every small-town competition that she comes across. There are skits, speeches, songs-and-dances. The man who sired Iris and Eva is charming but also lazy and dishonest, and the girls have to hide their prize money so he doesn’t steal it. Eventually, with enough cash squirreled away in a hollowed-out copy of Little Women, the girls hit the road for Hollywood.
Here is one of the first of this novel’s many startling twists. Iris has luck in Hollywood, and she gets invited to a lesbian orgy, where Tallulah Bankhead makes a guest appearance. More startling, still: Iris finds love at the party. She and her girlfriend have a handful of passionate outings, until a nasty conservative newspaper columnist learns of the affair and threatens to ruin a few careers. Disowned by her girlfriend, shut out of the movie industry, Iris struggles to support herself, and to support Eva. It’s tough to be a gay person in '40s Hollywood.
From here, rather abruptly, the girls travel back across the continent to Long Island, where Iris has work as a governess for a wealthy family. Along the way, Dishonest Dad makes a return appearance. He finds work with the same wealthy family—as an English butler. (Dad’s real story is that he grew up poor and Jewish in the Midwest—but the truth would make him less marketable. Everyone tells occasional lies.)
Iris has another tumultuous affair, Eva falls in love with Iris’s girlfriend’s husband, and Dad takes up with an African-American jazz singer who uses her vitiligo to help her pass as white. Devastated by the fact of her girlfriend’s marriage, Iris makes a secret phone call to government officials, to suggest that her girlfriend’s husband is actually a German spy. This monstrous action gets the husband—Gus—sent to a detention camp, where he befriends other German-Americans, and some Japanese-Americans, and struggles to maintain his dignity. Amazingly, he ends up deported to Germany, where he survives the Allied bombing of Pforsheim.
Apparently, the US government decided that German-Americans were best handled by deportation. The logic was this: if the German-Americans remained in the States, they might start, or resume, conducting secret anti-American actions. The government decided this scenario applied only to German-Americans; Japanese-Americans could remain in America, because their physical appearance would forever brand them as different, and would serve as a “helpful” notice to white American business-owners and government-workers—a notice that said, “Be on Your Guard.”
Does some of this seem a bit implausible? Maybe. In truth, I was happy to go along for the ride. Bloom’s research is so detailed, and her prose is so confident and clear, she makes you accept that the words you’re reading are “The Truth”. (Full disclosure: I studied with Bloom when I was in college, and one of her favorite commandments came from the novelist John Gardner: Fiction should always be like a seamless, completely convincing dream.)
It’s a shame that Random House has decreed that reviewers cannot quote from advance copies of their books, because Bloom writes very beautifully in this new novel, and I’d love to illustrate the point. As it is, take my word: Bloom’s sentences are often very funny, just as often very provocative, and just as often capable of making you blush. No one writes about sex like Bloom. And no one has quite the same balance of dark, dark humor and street smarts.
The world can a brutal place, and that reality is never overlooked in a Bloom novel. It’s brutal, but it’s also often survivable, if you’ve got some intelligence and some luck. One character despairs that, though she is smart, she is not very pretty. Her mentor informs her that brains are important—and rare. Brains are what count. Prettiness is merely something that you can fake.
The last part of Lucky Us involves a major act of reconciliation, and at first, I struggled to believe the concluding pages. Then I saw The Railway Man, in which a similar, shocking moment of forgiveness occurs—a moment that did really occur, in the years after World War II. So I’ll accept Bloom’s ending.
Still, I wish she would have spelled out in more detail the mechanism by which her main characters arrive at their final destination. I have to be vague here, because I don’t want to spoil the twist. Suffice it to say: A comment, from Bloom regarding the choices behind her novel’s ending, would be welcome.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that this novel, along with Bloom’s earlier books, should have a large readership among LGBT book-buyers, and among any groups who are—in one way or another—marginalized by American culture. When I first read a story by Bloom, I was 18 and closeted, and I knew a grand total of zero openly gay people. That story—about a woman whose daughter has decided to change her gender—made me suddenly feel much less lonely. It felt as if someone understood me and, to some extent, shared my view of the world.
Bloom has continued to write about what it’s like to make your way outside of the mainstream and, without preaching, she has given hope to many readers. Bloom’s aforementioned literary hero, Fitzgerald, has been called “a witty champion of life’s downtrodden”—and the same label could be applied to Bloom. As a writer and as a human being, she’s a force for the good.