Some­times when picking a new book to review, it’s best not to look at the advance praise printed on the back cover. Words like “epic, intimate, triumph, tragedy and funny” did not prepare me for what was in store in Alex George’s debut novel, A Good American.

The tale begins with a song, sung with love by Fred­erick Meisen­heimer. He is hiding behind a bush in the Grosse Garten in Hanover, Germany as the woman of his dreams, Jette Furst, approaches. Frederick’s voice. “as pure as a freshly struck bell,” falls on Jette “like a shower of jasmine.” My first thought on reading this was, Are you kidding? But I trusted George, and forged ahead. He wastes no time; by Chapter Two, they have fallen in love, Jette is pregnant three pages later, and in Chapter Three they board the good ship Coper­nicus and are married by its captain before setting sail for “the Land of the Free” in the year 1904.

Most European immi­grant sagas begin with New York as both des­ti­nation from a past and portal to a future. But the Coper­nicus’ des­ti­nation is New Orleans, and it is there that the Meisen­heimers first set foot on American soil. From New Orleans, Fred­erick and a very pregnant Jette, in an unlikely series of events, find them­selves in Beatrice, Mis­souri, the city in which their family will take root.

James Meisen­heimer, the second of Fred­erick and Jette’s four grandsons, is the nar­rator who speaks of the char­acters and inci­dents that leave their marks on three gen­er­a­tions of Meisen­heimers. Singing and music run through the nar­rative, from Frederick’s operatic beer hall singing, to ragtime, the begin­nings of blues, bar­bershop harmony and all the way into the close harmony of the four Meisen­heimer grandsons who are equally sought for per­forming not just at wed­dings, but funerals, as well. Music pro­videss the his­torical context of the family’s expe­rience which includes two world wars, indif­ferent and mur­derous racism, natural dis­asters, eco­nomic failure, pro­hi­bition and the social mores of modern America.

Music and love are at the core of this novel, and with the inventive pen of Alex George the reader is treated to rare insights into the immi­grant expe­rience of Middle America. The saga has all the ele­ments of any truly human story: love, hate, death, betrayal and long-​​held secrets. Fred­erick Meisen­heimer, who wants only to be a good American is both a genuine and satirical role model. It took this reviewer a while before she got it. But Alex George, like Fred­erick and Jette Meisen­heimer, is himself an immi­grant to America, and maybe it takes an immi­grant to tell this tale with such cap­ti­vating humor and pathos.

Midway through the novel, I could almost hear Ethel Merman belting out Let Me Entertain You. It was a bit like getting the rhythm of some­thing you thought you’d heard before, but not quite. They may never play A Good American at a World Series opener, but they should. This book could be a new National Anthem.       — ss

 

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