I’m betting that Americanah (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 477 pp.), the discomfiting and captivating 2013 novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is already in the stack of books you plan to devour in the near future. Adichie’s story—about immigration, the shifting properties of race, and the ferocity of young love—has notched accolades from just about every book reviewer in the country; it doesn’t need my recommendation. I mention it mostly because reading Americanah has revived my love for a 2007 work of fiction titled The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Riverhead Books, $19.29, 228 pp.).
Written by Dinaw Mengestu, Heaven is the story of a man who flees Ethiopia as it erupts into bloodshed only to start an aimless second life in a Washington, D.C., neighborhood on the crest of gentrification. Heaven doesn’t share much DNA with Americanah. Its tone is one of delicate regret, not triumph, and the protagonist is more withdrawn than fierce. But Heaven confronts from an opposing angle the same question that animates some of Americanah’s most transfixing passages: What is it like to walk around in an America that holds no promise for you?
The central character of Heaven, Sepha Stephanos, knows the answer. Stephanos belongs to the class of literary figures for whom the American Dream is not just elusive; it might as well have fangs. Seventeen years in America have taught Stephanos that assimilation calls for a string of unacceptable sacrifices—namely, the willingness to flatten his textured memories of Addis Ababa into the immigrant rags-to-riches fairy tale that Americans expect to hear. (He’d probably have to stop having long imaginary conversations with his father, who was murdered in Ethiopia, to boot.) Stephanos maintains a fragile balance between his not-quite-former and not-quite-current lives until he meets Judith, a white woman who moves between two similarly fractured worlds with vastly more confidence. A gorgeous story unfolds in the space between belonging and alienation, bolstered by Mengestu’s unmatched empathy and masterful command of dialogue.
As for escapism, I’ve been relying on a completely different set of books: Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye, Volumes 1 & 2 (Marvel, $10.99, 136 pp., each). Fraction brings to his comics wit, levity, and a patient approach to storytelling that eludes most authors of serialized material. Here he follows his protagonist, the master archer Clint Barton (a.k.a. Hawkeye), as he tangles with international criminal syndicates and scuffles with the track-suited legion of Russian mobsters who rule Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood. Along the way, Barton picks up some hapless but entertaining strays for friends. Hawkeye is deeply tender toward its screwup hero, and the misfits that Barton pulls into the book’s orbit broaden his canvas in winning ways. That tenderness is pure Fraction, who is one of the best comic-book writers working today.
Fraction’s collaborator and illustrator is the brilliant David Aja, who imbues the action in Hawkeye with sound, speed, and movement. Perhaps it’s been a while since you’ve laid hands on a comic book. There are no “Pow!” “Ziff!” fistfights in Hawkeye. But there are plenty of trick arrows. There is also Aja’s magical ability to conjure up conversational noise on the page—crosstalk between friends, peals of laughter at a poker game. Aja’s style is noirish, exacting, and perversely beautiful. His vision of New York is that of a metropolis perpetually lit by failing fluorescent lights. The fire escapes and micro-kitchens have never looked dingier, but the backdrop is homey, not brooding.
Zip through the first collected volume of Hawkeye so you can bask in volume 2, “Little Hits.” “Hits” follows Barton down a familiar path: the superhero who drives away the people closest to him. Fraction tells the story out of sequence, which would feel weary in the hands of a less nimble writer. And he can’t resist having some “aha!” fun with this device—so that’s why he was on the roof! Yet that narrative technique also allows the reader to see how we compulsively replay the intimate moments that precede personal calamity, as if reliving old humiliations through memory could overwrite history. The final chapter—stick with me here—hails from the perspective of a mutt named Pizza Dog as he roams Barton’s apartment complex. “Hits” is worth reading just to witness a homicide, a funeral, and the detonation of an adult friendship through the wordless, screwball, and surprising observations of a dog (provided the dog is scripted by two of the cleverest collaborators in comics). It’s the best story told by a canine who likes junk food that you’ll read all year.
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