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May 2024

Displaced Persons

by Joan Leegant

New American Press316 pp.

Reviewed by Janice Weizman

One of the things that literature has the power to do is to give us a mirror – a way of knowing both what we look like and who we are. In that sense, Joan Leegant’s new story collection, Displaced Persons, is exactly the sort of mirror we might consult in our present moment of uncertainty and reassessment. For the past several years, Leegant has divided her time between Israel and the US, and this peripatetic lifestyle has given her the perspective to set her writing in both locales. Accordingly, the collection is divided into two sections entitled “East” and “West” as if to emphasize that they are two different worlds, each with their own behavior, mentality, possibilities and craziness.  And also to say that displacement, wherever one happens to find oneself, might be what characterizes our times.

It is in the “East” section that she has taken on the greater challenge. Israeli society is a jumble of conflicting narratives, languages, and interests, with historical, social and psychological residues that color every aspect of life. It’s a kaleidoscope of identities that are not easily parsed, but Leegant resolves this literary conundrum by writing from her own perspective – that is, the perspective of an outsider looking in. Yet even in the few stories where her narrators take on the persona of Israelis, her lived experience in the country, coupled with an intuitive understanding of people and their motivations, enables her to convincingly convey the nature of everyday life in Israel.


“The Eleventh Happiest Country” for example, centers on Roi and Tal, two 40-something Israeli men who met in the army and went on to make films together, Roi as a director, Tal as his star actor. Their artistic partnership dissolved after Tal found religion and became ultra-orthodox, but now Tal is reaching out to Roi with an idea to make one last film, an “action flick” in which he’ll play “a former con man who’d found God but was dragged back into crime by his former con man buddies to do one last heist.” He elaborates, “It’ll be a real heist movie with a real movie ending. Prison or victory. The fact that the guy’s religious will have nothing to do with it.” 

Throughout the story the two are engaged in figuring out both the plot details and ways to finance the film, but there is also something else going on: early in the story, a character wonders why, in Happiness surveys, Israel scores such high ratings. The story enacts a response to this question, as each scene is replete with great meals, a backdrop of dynamic culture, lifelong friendships, and plenty of local color. Even as they argue, scramble, envy, and strategize, the characters are immersed in an existence that is rich, stimulating and viscerally exciting. Roi’s films depict fantasies:

After that, to keep fulfilling Len’s wish to make movies about ordinary life, Roi made two films about gorgeous post-army Israelis surfing and clubbing and driving around near the high-rise beachfront hotels in fancy cars they got from somewhere— it was the movies, so a little license was allowed. It was like Hawaii 5-0 without a plot. The characters brooded about the meaning of life during the day, and then went out at night and sucked it dry.

Yet actual ordinary life, as Tal and Roi experience it, is no less colorful, and much more interesting:

Let’s come up with something fresh,” Tal said, spreading tahina over his charred eggplant. They were in Jaffa near the water. The place was famous for roasting the vegetables to perfection, the only other place you could get eggplant this good was in the Druze villages up north on the Syrian border where they did it on charcoal in open pits….Tal scooped up his tahina with his pita. “What’s regular life here? Women dragging their shopping carts to the vegetable man? Cats in the alley shrieking? Ten kinds of strudel in the bakery window? Fat old Russians at the beach?” He pushed the other eggplant half to Roi and passed him the bread basket.

Despite the fact that writing about daily life in Israel is definitely in Leegant’s comfort zone, it is in the second part of the collection, “West,” where she exhibits her virtuoso work with character. Leegant knows these people in a way that enables her to fully inhabit the psychology of her subjects, and to portray their lives and circumstances with crystal clear realism. Her themes here center on the family; the unrelenting demands of parenthood, caring for older parents and their unfinished business, unfulfilled hopes, and making the best of what you have. They also seem to imply that no matter how brutal the circumstances life often offers, if not a solution—at least a reprieve.

“Roots” for example, centers on the character of Hirschman, an 82-year-old “lifelong agnostic, and proud of it.” When his daughter, Wendy, asks him to help her 13-year-old stepson, Jason, “rediscover his ‘roots’,” he responds:

‘What roots?... Hirschman was not merely an agnostic but a frugal agnostic, platforms that seemed to him not unrelated, for what was dogma if not the lavishing of excessive belief on the wholly unnecessary, not to mention unproveable? ‘The were thieves, my ancestors. Crooks. The stole from their business partners and screwed their customers. They came here from Russian like the British went to Australia, as ex-cons, fleeing. What do you think, everyone had a father like Bashevis Singer’s with his saintly rabbinical court? Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof?’

Hirschman has a knack for handling adolescents which he honed while raising Wendy:

Need Hirschman even think about all that he and his long dead wife had endured because of Wendy? A list a mile long and everything a man of his years had once read about on the screaming covers of Time. Drugs, abortions political arrests, the FBI knocking on their door, serial boyfriends, some apparently if briefly, quasi-spousal…’

Grouchy, sly, cynical, but also wise and protective, Hirschman is a marvelous character who, unlike Jason's self-absorbed parents, is able not only to connect with the boy, but also to instill in him the sense of belonging, heritage, and family that he craves. When Jason confides in him that his parents want to send him to therapy, Hirschman weighs in:

Ach, that’s nothing. Intimidation. Oldest tactic in the book. Radicals never let that stop them, union organizers never let that stop them.

The boy was unconvinced. “I need a counter-strategy.”

Hirschman watched him devour the cookies…Tell them you’ll be glad to go because then you’ll have the chance to tell the shrink all about them. About the fights and the name-calling, anything you heard. Anything you care to make up. A whole delightfully sordid history.

Hirschman has seen enough to know that most troubles are temporary and they often have a silver lining, or as he puts it later in the story when Wendy is faced with yet another crises, “Tempus fugit, but that doesn’t mean it fugits and leaves you with nothing.”

It's not only Hirschman’s voice that makes this excellent story sing, but also the ongoing juxtaposition of high and low, good behavior and bad, truth, fiction, and the very fuzzy line between them. As he reflects, in a sly move toward metafiction at the end of the story, “whether the stories were provable or not was irrelevant. It was your choice whether or not to believe.”


At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf

reviewed by

Nancy Ludmerer

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