The impressive debut collection by Antopol (National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Awardee; Wallace Stegner Fellow) features a variety of settings—Israel, Belarus, California, Poland, Maine—and characters, but it also has an unusual cohesiveness for a first collection.
Most of the characters here are Jews of Eastern European extraction; most are grappling, in one way or another, with issues of estrangement: from home, from family members, from the big ideological/idealistic causes they once espoused, from themselves. In “The Unknown Soldier,” set in California at the time of Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts, a young Russian-American actor emerges from a year in prison for contempt of Congress—a rap he takes despite being a communist of convenience, so as to aid his movie career, rather than of conviction—and tries to reconnect with his 10-year-old son. “The Quietest Man” centers on a Czech dissenter and émigré-turned–American professor who, a quarter-century after his departure from Prague and nearly as long after a divorce brought on by his selfishness, is terrified that his semi-estranged daughter, a playwright, has written a scarcely veiled indictment of his failures and inattentions. The harrowing and poignant “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story” depicts a ragtag band of World War II teen guerrillas who call themselves the Yiddish Underground. Antopol offers complex, psychologically subtle portraits of her often regretful characters, and the details—child revolutionaries carrying sharpened branches through Eastern European forests during WWII since, at a distance, they can pass for rifles or Czech dissidents who must compose their plaints against the government longhand since “the government had a record of everyone who owned typewriters”—are chilling and persuasive.
A smart, empathetic, well-crafted first collection—Antopol is a writer to watch.