Lansky is one of the gravitational centers of Zachary
Lazarís new novel, "I Pity the Poor
Immigrant" (Little, Brown and Co., $25). Not so
much the dapper, "Boardwalk Empire"-era
gangster as Lansky in 1972 in Israel, seeking to retire
there under the countryís Law of Return. Itís hardly
the most celebrated era in Lanskyís life, but Lazar
was going for something other than the obvious.
initial idea of this book was to put Meyer Lansky in the
same room as King David from the Bible," Lazar said
via Skype from his home office in New Orleans.
"That was such a crazy idea it was nearly a
yet the King David story does appear, woven seamlessly
into a multi-threaded narrative that includes Lansky and
his 1970s mistress, flashbacks to his younger days, plus
a contemporary American journalist who has a love affair
when she investigates the slaying of a (fictional)
Israeli poet whose politically tinged work gives the
novel its title.
who recently got tenure teaching creative writing at
Tulane, proved that he could make disconnected story
lines work with "Sway," his 2008 novel that
moved among the Rolling Stonesí Brian Jones,
avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger and Charles Manson
associate Bobby Beausoleil. In another writerís hands,
this mightíve been lurid; in Lazarís, it was a
brilliant, controlled look at creativity and chaos.
his mid-40s, Lazar seems younger, wearing a casual plaid
shirt when we talk. His office in the home he shares
with his wife, an OB-GYN, Sarah, is modest and
organized. Its most striking feature is a bold painting
from an inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in
Angola that heís planning to include in his next
Lazarís easygoing demeanor lies a hungry intellect, a
rare craft and a drive to write books that donít on
the surface resemble one another. "I used to worry
that this was not a good thing," he says, because
the marketplace rewards series, not diversity.
Pity the Poor Immigrant" is anchored in the texture
of daily life ó a potato chip bag littering the Valley
of Elah, the mistressí itchy nylons, the
"narcotic gray light of the terminal at JFK"
ó but it also examines the relationships between
fathers and sons, violenceís legacy and Israel.
to do with the idealistic promise of Israel as a new
nation versus whatís going on there now with the
occupation," Lazar says. "The early, so-called
fathers of that nation being replaced by a generation of
people who are less ó whatís the word? ó who just
donít live up to those ideas. Itís very likely that
those ideals couldnít be lived up to. But (Benjamin)
Netanyahu is not David Ben-Gurion."
who is Jewish, knew only the vague outlines of Israelís
history when he was starting to write the novel. He took
two research trips to the country to get a feel for the
know Iím an outsider going in there, and thatís
fraught with complicated problems," he says.
"I remember walking around on the green line where
West and East Jerusalem are separated, and finally
having this realization that I didnít have to solve
the problem of Israel, I just had to write a story and
try to describe Israel within the story."
narrative to contain a bigger problem and give it a kind
of meaning is something Lazar has done before. His 2009
memoir, "Eveningís Empire," was about his
fatherís life and 1975 murder. Ed Lazar, a Phoenix
accountant, was killed by two gangland assassins before
he could give a second day of testimony in a land fraud
case against a former partner. "I have always had
two ideas," Lazar wrote in that book. "That
one day I would have to write about my fatherís story,
and that if I ever did so I would never be able to write
another thing again."
Lazar, who got an MFA in creative writing from the
Writersí Workshop at the University of Iowa, was bound
to begin again. Violence, he admits, is the link between
his books, although itís not the flashy,
Hollywood-ready kind. "What I think you can do in
literature is get into the interiority of people: the
scenes that lead up to the violence, and the scenes that
take place after the violence happens. Which is really
probably where a lot of the more interesting
psychological transactions are happening," he says.
think itís important that literature not cede the
ground of this stuff to movies and TV. We keep doing it,
because we have something to bring to the conversation
..." Lazar continues. "What weíre trying to
bring, I hope, is meaning. How is it possible, why, how
does it happen? Thatís what Iím trying to do,