“Lots of people don’t think Jesus was real,” Imani pointed out. “It’s just that in the American narrative, my people, black people, own slavery, you know? We were brought here in chains, the middle passage, the plantation, right? Slavery is our thing. You all have the Holocaust and, yeah, it’s horrible, maybe the worst tragedy ever, you probably win that one — not that it’s a contest — but what I’m asking, I guess, is why do the Jews need slavery?”
“You’re quite the little provocateur, aren’t you?” Jay said.
“I’m just saying,” Imani replied.
Lest we stray too far into rolling our eyes at Imani, we see her anger justified when Jay’s partially senile mother makes a racist remark: “At the head of the table, Jay’s mother leaned toward her son and wondered, ‘Why is Uncle Jerry yelling at the cleaning woman?’” And Jay must then inform her that she is a guest, not the cleaning woman, a point that is beyond the older lady’s comprehension abilities.
Imani’s main attributes encapsulate the self-righteous angry liberal stereotype, unable to see beyond her own particular causes and interests, even getting certain basic argumentative facts wrong while passionately arguing her points. Aviva also falls into this category, while her grandmother seems mired in an age-old classic racism so deeply embedded that she would never call it into question. Greenland seems to be having a great time with satire here, showing the multitude of ways people can be limited by the tunnel vision created by their backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions. Jay Gladstone questions his obsessive deep love of black culture, which began in his teenage years, as he aspired to be a basketball player himself. The yearning to be part of a team that transcends race, background, and culture is beautifully rendered in passages like these:
The players clapped and yelled, and their supportive cheers merged with Dag’s clarion voice to create a shield that for a brief instant protected them all: from the expectations of sportswriters and fans, from the demands of girlfriends and wives, from the still distant notion that the day would come when they would cease to be members of this charmed circle.
The book is peppered with subtleties, such as wife Nicole Gladstone’s growing alcoholic tendencies, placed early on to show that trouble is brewing even when all seems well at an early basketball game. Nicole’s need to escape her problems by drinking ends up being a crucial factor in the disastrous decision that destroys two men’s lives and reputations.
Greenland’s main strength, beyond superb characterization, is his ability to weave different narrative threads together in order to maintain maximum tension and forward momentum. His plotting is masterful. Indeed, it is impressive that his book never seems to wander into distracted territory or lose its focus as the primary characters come crashing together in escalating plot points involving sexual betrayal, racial politics, and lost dreams. Greenland leaves no stone unturned in exploring his themes of racism, the privileges of race, and the intricacies and potential corruption of the justice system. The media is used to great effect, showing its own maddening fixations as well as shifting public opinions during the Obama presidency (the central characters are high enough on the totem pole to have access to an Obama dinner). This epic book, which can be exhausting in its thoroughness, is provocative and satisfying.
We watch the mighty fall from grace, the protagonists’ carefully constructed worlds explode into a debacle that spreads its tentacles over all the book’s characters. Each one is painfully self-conscious, a choice on the part of the author to show their dreams and biases, as they carefully weigh how to get what they want in this upper echelon world. At times, this self-consciousness can wear down the reader, as well as some swift close third POV shifts that can be a bit abrupt and dizzying (going from husband’s head to wife’s in a single page). The grand scope of the book limits the ability to fully understand individual characters’ desires on a greater level, such as Nicole’s sudden desire for a baby (we are not in her perspective enough to really get it) and this is the sacrifice of the chosen point of view and style. We end up understanding Jay, Dag, and the Christine the most, as these are the central characters of this intricate novel, which seems to take on an entire era of history. Most of the characters try hard not to offend, aiming for political correctness, while also striving to get a piece of the pie they feel is owed to them. It is the modern American dilemma complicated by moral quagmires and precarious good fortune. The title is apt in this regard.
The book is undeniably bold, original, and deeply impressive in its investigation of the desire for greatness, along with the need to escape one’s background in order to arrive at some higher experience that seems just out of reach, during a specific time in recent history. We see each character’s purity as well as his or her biases. Psychological depth mixes quite nicely with Greenland’s pace-driven novel of multiple narratives.
Taylor Larsen is the author of the novel Stranger, Father, Beloved (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster, 2016). She teaches fiction writing for Catapult and the Sackett Street Writers Workshop and her work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Literary Hub, and elsewhere.