Irreverence reigns in Francine Prose's funny yet thought-provoking and completely irresistible new novel, "My New American Life."
True to its title, it is the tale of an immigrant -- one who would prefer that the book be called, "Stranger in a Strange Land."
For America is strange indeed to 26-year-old Lula who hails from Albania where, she claims, gangsters roam unimpeded, driving is "more of an extreme sport than an everyday method of transportation" and "a garbage dump is a clear mountain stream or the side of a country road."
Ruthless of tongue -- and even more ruthless of thought -- Lula is the product, she says, of "a thousand years of Balkan history, with the what-else-is-new of invaders, murder, pillage, and exile, and the what-can-you-do of failed monarchies, empires, promises, and scams, the what-do-you-expect of Communism, of decades when you couldn't know anything, couldn't do anything, couldn't say anything, when all you could do was shrug and teach your children to shrug."
Prose's Lula, however, is much more than an Albanian girl with street smarts. She also has a soul -- and a multilayered one at that. Plus, we learn a lot from Lula -- and not just about her native Albania. No. Lula teaches us more about America, and ourselves.
We meet her in Baywater, N.J., 10 miles from Manhattan, where she is employed as an unofficial "nanny" to a teenager named Zeke whose mother disappeared the previous Christmas Eve and whose father, "Mister Stanley," is a kind of largely ineffective man, a banker who is curious about Lula's leaving her home in Albania's capital city of Tirana.
"Mister Stanley should go to Albania if he wondered why she left," Lula muses. "Who would choose Tirana over a city where half-naked fashion models and their stockbroker boyfriends drank mojitos from pitchers decorated with dancing monkeys? The land of opportunity. Hadn't Mister Stanley heard? But America was like Communism and post-Communism combined. You weren't supposed to be materialistic until you got successful, after which it was practically your duty to flaunt it in everyone's face."
Prose (who I am tempted to say always lives up to her surname) brings us not only Lula but also Mister Stanley and Zeke as full-blown characters -- people who feel real to us, and who we know we won't soon forget.
All three grow and change here, in believable ways, supported by a further cast of characters that includes one Don Settebello, a childhood friend of Mister Stanley's, now a "famous" immigration attorney who divides his time between the New York City area and Guantanamo Bay.
Lula's visa is running out. Don Settebello sets things straight, suggesting -- altruistically and otherwise -- that Lula write a book about herself, the country she left and the country she now lives in.
Lula will lie, about Albania, in the book -- but this won't be her only grave deception while she is living in Mister Stanley's house. Three (shady) Albanian men will see to that, showing up at Mister Stanley's home while only Lula is there, calling her "Little Sister."
"Remind me how we're related," Lula asks.
"All Albanians are related," one of the trio tells her. "Brothers and sisters."
Brothers and sisters indeed. The three -- initially called Leather Jacket, Hoodie and Alvo by Lula -- are on a devious mission: They need Lula to keep a gun for them, no questions asked.
Lula, "unable to resist the lure of risky entertainment," acquiesces.
It is the frisson of the gun that gives "My New American Life" a plot of sorts -- but it is the relationship between Lula and Zeke that makes the book memorable.
Every day, after school, the two are together -- watching TV, figuring out dinner, sometimes talking, sometimes not:
Last night, like every night, Lula and Zeke had eaten in front of the TV. Lula made them watch the evening news, educational for them both. The president had come on the air to warn the American people about the threat of bird flu. The word avian was hard for him. His forehead stitched each time he said it, and his eyelids fluttered, as if he'd been instructed to think of birds as a memory prompt.
"At home," Lula marveled, "that man is a god."
"You say that every night," Zeke said."
"I'm reminding myself," she'd said.
Later she would say to Zeke: "There is no bird flu. A war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, sure. Maybe one chicken in China with a sore throat and a fever."
"How do you know everything?" Zeke will ask.
The long and the short of it is Lula doesn't -- but she knows enough to realize that Zeke is "semi-depressed"; knows enough to keep him safe, interested and somewhat focused. That it is just what each of them needs won't dawn till later (when the word "family" will come to mind).
Meanwhile, Prose holds our attention with the specter of a stalker -- someone who uses Lula's shower in her absence, who finishes one of her fabricated stories. Lula hopes this stalker is Alvo, the "cute one" of the Albanian trio, checking up on his gun.
There is also the matter of the missing Dunia, the friend Lula left Albania with, losing track of her when Lula moved from Manhattan's Lower East Side to Mister Stanley's home in New Jersey. "It can get boring here," Lula confides when they find one another.
"The shopping is better," says Dunia, "the sex is not."
While it is behind the banter that the real human connection is made here, it is the banter that delights -- that and the musings of Lula about everything.
Depression, she thinks, is "a disease that didn't exist when she was a child." Ambivalence, in her opinion, is "a sign of maturity." The concept of "less trouble" is "very American."
Paranoia is "English for Balkan common sense." Every Albanian fact "is a little-known fact."
On immigration, Prose's Lula is hilarious but telling: "Lula knew that some Americans cheered every time INS agents raided factories and shoved dark little chicken-packers into the backs of trucks. She'd seen the guys on Fox News calling for every immigrant except German supermodels and Japanese baseball players to be deported."
Lula herself is legal, thanks to Don Settebello. But then she remembers: "Big deal. This was Dick Cheney America. Native-born citizens worried. It was just a matter of time before someone on Fox News got the bright idea of sending back the Pilgrims who'd landed on Plymouth Rock."
There are no diminishing returns here, and it is hard -- at book's end -- to say good-bye to the irrepressible Lula who is on to her next American adventure, without us.
She notes, in "My New American Life," that there is no Balkan phrase for a "win-win situation."
A pity, for the expression would certainly apply here.
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.
MY NEW AMERICAN LIFE
By Francine Prose
306 pages, $25.99