“Behold the Dreamers” is the much-anticipated debut novel of Cameroon native Imbolo Mbue. Mbue tells the story of Jende and Neni, recent immigrants who have come to New York City from a small Cameroonian village chasing the American dream and a better life for their young son. While Neni pursues a higher education, Jende gets a job as a chauffeur for a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Mind you, this is the fall of 2007, so while the reader smells impending doom, the characters are blindly walking down the metaphorical basement stairs.
Jende and Neni are poor immigrants, fighting for their green cards with a charming blend of wide-eyed innocence and optimism about the “land of opportunity” and worldly wisdom about their chance in this world and the oppression they face. Neni wisely scolds their son: “‘I’ve told you this, and I’ll keep on telling you: School is everything for people like us. We don’t do well in school, we don’t have any chance in this world. You know that, right?'” Even as they hold on tightly to their American dream, they are unable to ignore the realities of their status – they are poor, they are black, and they are immigrants. America’s promised embrace is alternately a chokehold.
The humor with which Neni and Jende meet the average American’s ignorance of their continent is a well-crafted moment of levity in a story that is mostly deflating.
“She seemed nice, but she was out likely one of those American women whose knowledge of Africa was based largely on movies and National Geographic and thirdhand information from someone who knew someone who had been to somewhere on the continent, usually Kenya or South Africa. Whenever Jende met such women …, they often said something like, oh my God, I saw this really crazy show about such-and-such in Africa. Or, my cousin/friend/neighbor used to date an African man, and he was a really nice guy. Or, even worse, if they asked him where in Africa he was from and he said Cameroon, they proceeded to tell him that a friend’s daughter once went to Tanzania or Uganda. This comment used to irk him until [his cousin] Winston gave him the perfect response: Tell them your friend’s uncle lives in Toronto.”
Jende’s boss is seemingly the “good guy”; though he demands loyalty and discretion from his employees, he is also personable and sympathetic. Or at least, sympathet-ish, given his wealth and status. More importantly for the crux of the narrative, he is the voice of conscience and ethics in the midst of rampant greed and nefarious business at the powder-keg that is Lehman Brothers. He is meant to be the benevolent overlord, but at times his commitment to his role falls flat. He speaks of stress and distress, but it feels academic and lacking emotion. His wife Cindy, however, is believably cast as the rich bitch villain. Among her more noteworthy moments of blind privilege, she and her friend bemoan the sacrifices they may have to make in the face of the economic recession. They laugh off the idea of reducing their household staff.
“‘Yeah, that’s exactly what we need now, right?’ Cindy said. ‘To be cooking and cleaning and doing laundry while we’re losing money and sleep. That would be wonderful!’ The women laughed together. ‘But it’s scary how bad this could get,’ Cheri said, her tone turning serious as their laughter ebbed. ‘When people start talking about flying coach and selling vacation homes…'”
As Lehman Brothers collapses and the world economy begins to spiral, Neni and Jende’s American dream is further threatened, the scales fall from their eyes. Yet Mbue has Jende reflect on the recession as an unprovoked and innocent tragedy.
“In many different ways it would be an unprecedented plague, a calamity like the one that had befallen the Egyptians in the Old Testament. The only difference between the Egyptians then and the Americans now, Jende reasoned, was that the Egyptians had been cursed by their own wickedness. They had called an abomination upon their land by worshipping idols and enslaving their fellow humans, all so they could live in splendor. They had chosen riches over righteousness, rapaciousness over justice. The Americans had done no such thing.”
Really?!? Does Mbue believe Jende’s Pollyannish view or is she being ironic? One hopes for irony, because the Egyptian plague is a rather precise and apt analogy for what Wall Street did to set off a world-wide economic crisis. And in the case of irony, this passage was a resounding, pithy indictment.
All in all, my high hopes for Mbue’s debut were a bit let down. I appreciated the idea of her story and the modern look at the immigrant experience, but I felt that the characters were a bit one dimensional, the plot formulaic and predictable. Perhaps the weaknesses of this first novel can be chalked up to rookie mistakes and jitters which will be ironed out in due course. Her writing definitely shows promise and her perspective is a welcome one, so I will certainly look forward to her future works.
Thank you to Random House for the complimentary Advanced Review Copy.