I took a break from Clarissa last weekend to read my friend Erika Dreifus’s debut collection of short stories, Quiet Americans. It’s a lovely collection of loosely interconnected stories about American Jews and their European roots.
Erika is a historian by training, and you can feel that in the assurance of her voice, her attention to details, the way that every character, every story feels rooted in a precise time and place. The opening story, about a Jewish pediatrician who counted among his patients a child of a top-ranking Nazi is wonderfully tense. The scene in which the doctor is summoned to the Nazi’s office and advised, strongly, to leave Germany is cinematic and haunting. The fact that the doctor heeds the advice, a welcome happy ending.
But all the characters in the book are haunted. Most of these stories are about American Jews with German roots who just barely got out in time (or are the children and grandchildren of those men and women). The survivor’s guilt, the sense of the duty to remember, to protect, to insure that a Holocaust doesn’t happen again, is palpable throughout. These are stories that convey one of the key strains in our culture. For me, they worked best when there is tension within that burden, as in the witty and effervescent last story about a man who becomes obsessed with tracing his own family tree. Less successful, for me, were stories about the 1972 Munich Olympics or the sorry episode of Amiri Baraka’s lost tenure as poet laureate of New Jersey for his nutty, anti-Semitic musings about the root causes of 9/11. Those stories keep alive a grief and a grievance that’s fully justified: I shudder in horror at the thought of those slaughtered athletes and in shame at the way a great poet can fall prey to crackpot ideas. Still, in political fiction, I want more subtlety, an acknowledgment of the real pain that leads people to become violent or even just to believe in conspiracies.
Unqualifiedly wonderful is a story where Erika works a different vein, channeling Isaac Babel or Isaac Bashevis Singer in “Matrilineal Descent,” a moving fable about two sisters in a village in Germany, one plain and hardworking, the other pretty and delicate, and the baker whom they both love.
Best of all, as others have said, is the title story, “Quiet Americans, or How to Be a Good Guest.” There, the duty to witness battles with a character’s natural reserve richly and powerfully. I approached this story, its title so evocative of Louis Begley or Graham Greene, with some trepidation, fearing it would be a paean to “The Greatest Generation.” Instead, the quiet American is “you,” a young grad student born in the 60s or 70s, visiting Germany for the first time. As she listens to a young tour guide noting, again and again, buildings that were destroyed in the war, never mentioning the lives lost, never acknowledging the Holocaust, the young quiet American grows increasingly frustrated with rage. But what to say? How to interrupt the tour? It’s a wonderful dilemma and the solution is just terrific.
It reminded me of a tour I took, years ago, of a stately home outside Charleston. The tour guide said that the family had taken a “hiatus” to England during the years 1862-1866. Why, asked my friend, also a historian, did the family choose to leave the South during just those years exactly? Hmmm?
In any case, I can highly recommend Erika’s collection. Each story is a gem on its own and, together, they paint a portrait of the enduring European roots of many American Jews, both of the Holocaust and of the culture that the Holocaust tried, but failed, to fully destroy. They are also beautifully written, crafted with care, with a sure voice that has many registers. A great debut.