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I Pity the Poor Immigrant
Cover of I Pity the Poor Immigrant
I Pity the Poor Immigrant
A Novel
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The stunning new novel by the author of Sway is another "brilliant portrayal of life as a legend" (Margot Livesey).

In 1972, the American gangster Meyer Lansky petitions the Israeli government for citizenship. His request is denied, and he is returned to the U.S. to stand trial. He leaves behind a mistress in Tel Aviv, a Holocaust survivor named Gila Konig.

In 2009, American journalist Hannah Groff travels to Israel to investigate the killing of an Israeli writer. She soon finds herself inside a web of violence that takes in the American and Israeli Mafias, the Biblical figure of King David, and the modern state of Israel. As she connects the dots between the murdered writer, Lansky, Gila, and her own father, Hannah becomes increasingly obsessed with the dark side of her heritage. Part crime story, part spiritual quest, I Pity the Poor Immigrant is also a novelistic consideration of Jewish identity.

The stunning new novel by the author of Sway is another "brilliant portrayal of life as a legend" (Margot Livesey).

In 1972, the American gangster Meyer Lansky petitions the Israeli government for citizenship. His request is denied, and he is returned to the U.S. to stand trial. He leaves behind a mistress in Tel Aviv, a Holocaust survivor named Gila Konig.

In 2009, American journalist Hannah Groff travels to Israel to investigate the killing of an Israeli writer. She soon finds herself inside a web of violence that takes in the American and Israeli Mafias, the Biblical figure of King David, and the modern state of Israel. As she connects the dots between the murdered writer, Lansky, Gila, and her own father, Hannah becomes increasingly obsessed with the dark side of her heritage. Part crime story, part spiritual quest, I Pity the Poor Immigrant is also a novelistic consideration of Jewish identity.

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About the Author-
  • Zachary Lazar's previous novel, Sway (Little, Brown), was chosen as a Best Book of 2008 by the Los Angeles Times, and his memoir, Evening's Empire: The Story of My Father's Murder (Little, Brown), was named a Best Book of 2009 in the Chicago Tribune. Lazar is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. He lives in New Orleans, where he is on the creative writing faculty at Tulane University.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    February 3, 2014
    The notorious gangster Meyer Lansky is the ostensible subject of this complex novel. Lazar uses some details from Lansky’s real life (as a Jew, he sought refuge from American law enforcement in Israel, but was eventually extradited) to explore the nature of history itself, mixing fact and fiction as he did in his 2011 novel, Sway. Journalist Hannah Groff writes a story about the murder of an Israeli poet named David Bellen, who had written a book “in which the biblical King David is presented in the guise of a 20th-century gangster.” Groff’s article leads her to Gila Konig, who says she was Lansky’s mistress in Israel (now living in New York). The book moves back and forth in time, point of view, and even genre (large chunks are written in the New Journalism style, mixing the personal with the factual). Lazar juggles the elliptical and fragmented narrative effectively; he is also an excellent stylist, cleverly mimicking multiple forms. The author ambitiously makes a point about history—public and personal—and how it can lead to unexpected byways. As Groff notes, “Against our deepest wishes, we become suddenly, inexplicably, committed to a path we had avoided, a line of thought we’d had no interest in.” An interesting and challenging novel.

  • Kirkus

    February 1, 2014
    A complex tale involving Meyer Lansky, Las Vegas, an investigative reporter and the murder of an Israeli poet. Lazar (Evening's Empire, 2009, etc.) brings all these elements--and more--together as he jumps across decades and intercalates different narrators. At the center of the novel is Meyer Lansky, not the brash young gangster but, rather, the elderly, frail and even pathetic figure who petitions the government of Israel, where he wants to live out his last years, for citizenship. His request is denied, and he's returned to the United States. We learn about Lansky's relationship with his mistress Gila Konig, a cocktail waitress, and Lazar also gives us tantalizing glimpses into Lansky's connections to Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Back in New York, Gila becomes a Hebrew teacher but quits after an ugly confrontation regarding her experience in Bergen-Belsen. One of her students, Hannah Groff, eventually grows up, becomes a reporter and goes to Israel to investigate the death of writer David Bellen, who was both a poet and a belletrist. One of his long essays, like the novel entitled Pity the Poor Immigrant, is an extended meditation on several books involving Las Vegas and Jewish gangsters, specifically Meyer Lansky. (It's a sign of Lazar's verisimilitude that the books his fictitious poet reviews are in fact real books.) Hannah both develops and pursues an interest in Gila, who, it turns out, had a relationship with Hannah's father. The connections Lazar makes here are complex and artful, though at times bewildering even to discerning readers.

    COPYRIGHT(2014) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from April 1, 2014

    When investigative crime reporter Hannah Groff decides to write about the murder of Israeli poet David Bellen, she has no idea what she will uncover. Soon she is learning about the 1972 attempt by American Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky to gain Israeli citizenship. She meets Bellen's son, Eliav, a recovering drug addict; learns that her Hebrew school teacher Gila Konig had an affair with Meyer Lansky and also with Hannah's father; and she reads Bellen's depiction of King David as a biblical thug. As various stories converge, the reader is taken on a dizzying ride through the crimes of the Jewish mob in the 1920s and 1930s, through the mind of an antiestablishment Israeli poet, through the lives of the women who service these men, and eventually to a challenging definition of Jewish identity. VERDICT Lazar, whose novel Sway brought together Charles Manson's horrific crimes, the life of filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and the rise of the Rolling Stones, is a master of combining disparate stories into one complicated revealing narrative. In this novel, he has again succeeded in taking the reader through various seemingly unconnected lives and demonstrating how we are all immigrants striving for some inexplicable dream.--Andrea Kempf, formerly with Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, KS

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    April 15, 2014
    Weaving together the threads of many stories, Lazar starts with Jewish American mobster Meyer Lansky, who walked away from his 1972 trial free but was denied his wish to become an Israeli citizen. In between doling out tidbits of Lansky's personal life and early years, Lazar crafts masterful fictional characters who seem as genuine as the real-life mobsters: Gila Konig, Lansky's mistress and a Holocaust survivor; David Bellen, murdered Israeli poet; and Hannah Groff, an American journalist who finds herself deeply wrapped up in Lansky's story, even though she has never met the man. Blending fact and fiction freely, Lazar insightfully examines the importance of whether the myths we tell ourselves and each other can become their own kind of truth in the end. Pair this with Eric Dezenhall's The Devil Himself (2011), also about Lansky's later life.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2014, American Library Association.)

  • Antonya Nelson This is a true portrait of history...as understood by characters whose individual parts have been beautifully brought together by a master craftsman.
  • -Sam Lipsyte, author of Home Land and The Ask Here's a truly exciting novel. The conception is bold, the execution mesmerizing. Zachary Lazar makes the old stories dangerous and urgent again, and reveals the terror beneath our tidy versions of the now.
  • -Rachel Kushner, author of 2013 National Book Award finalist The Flamethrowers I Pity the Poor Immigrant is work of intricate and precise mystery, a book that is like a bold monument in an empty desert, a thing built of dread, and silences, and dazzling elegance, by a worldly and masterful hand.
  • -Joshua Ferris, author of The Unnamed I Pity the Poor Immigrant conveys on every page a radical intensity of emotion and intellect. It's epic in scope and yet, in bursts of fine flinty prose, of great economy. Plus it has gangsters in it, and murder, and old lovers, and, above all, a father and daughter whose story turns out to be a heartbreaker.
  • -Antonya Nelson, author of Bound I Pity the Poor Immigrant is the next iteration of story-making that attempts to tell the truth by means of blending fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and journalism. Like the novels of W. G. Sebald, Zachary Lazar's tale involves a collage of documents, a mix of voices and points of view, to get at the elusive (and inconclusive) nature of human experience. This is a true portrait of history-its circling, complicating elements-as understood by characters whose individual parts have been beautifully brought together by a master craftsman.
  • -Salvatore Scibona, author of The End (finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Young Lions Fiction Award) This novel of living myths and the way we manufacture them could not have found a more perfectly paradoxical backdrop: Jerusalem, the spiritual beginning of the West; and Vegas, capital of the other West, where our oldest places are restaged for fun and profit. Zachary Lazar transforms Meyer Lansky from famous mobster to mythic stateless antihero, a figure who might as easily walk out of an airport as out of Sophoclean tragedy.
  • -Kirkus Reviews A...tale involving Meyer Lansky, Las Vegas, an investigative reporter and the murder of an Israeli poet... The connections Lazar makes here are complex and artful.
  • -Publishers Weekly Lazar juggles the elliptical and fragmented narrative effectively; he is also an excellent stylist, cleverly mimicking multiple forms. The author ambitiously makes a point about history-public and personal-and how it can lead to unexpected byways... An interesting and challenging novel.
  • Jaimy Gordon, author of Lord of Misrule Zachary Lazar's brilliant I Pity the Poor Immigrant considers Jewish identity in the provocative and riddling way that Walter Abish's How German Is It asked a similar question about Germans—but Lazar's is ane ven more daring project, for Jews have seldom been willing to look at themselves as perpetrators. Here Lazar deploys once again that signature mixture of panorama, poetry, and intimate observation that he invented in his novel Sway, to evoke the chatoic, hypnotic world of sixties rock and roll. In I Pity the Poor Immigrant, the maze of interlocking voices, bloody crime scenes, and rubble-strewn, blighted cityscapes from the West Bank to the Lower East Side suggests a disturbing question: How Jewish is violence? Lazar never exactly answers: rather, he mesmerizes the reader with a somber, ever moving, kaleidoscopic demonstration: the will to violence, as a strategy as well as a defense, an ambition as well as a compensation, has been with us from the beginning, from King David to Meyer Lansky, from ancient Israel to Las Vegas, New York and Tel Aviv. These are aspects of the poor immigrant experience that respectably fixed later generations prefer to forget: how some of the first to arrive, however impeccable their excuses, looked about them and too the violent opporunity, used the weak and the greedy, to force their way up, sometimes to the top. And yet, as it catches him in its strange, flickering, unstable narrative light, I Pity the Poor Immigrant somehow generates authentic, if bitter, pity even for a gangster like Lansky, stranded in his habit of silence when the State of Israel...
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A Novel
Zachary Lazar
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