The American Heart of Islam
- By Siamak Vossoughi
A Review of Benjamin Hollander’s In The House Un-American
It would be one thing if not fitting in in America were something clear. For Puerto Rican Jew Carlos ben Carlos Rossman—the main character in Benjamin Hollander’s new book In The House Un-American—if not fitting in were something he could put his finger on, he could then either proceed to overcome it, or to make peace with it, as he saw fit. The understanding he seeks is his life’s journey. Along the way he hears the voices of his fellow immigrants—Italian café shop owners and Iranian auto mechanics, all living in San Francisco—who meet his questions with questions of their own. Meanwhile the Americans he encounters are evasive about what it is to be American. “Why,” they would say, in a spirit of tolerance, “there’s no such thing as an American. Anyone could be us.” Hence Carlos’s central question: “If every other country had its genetic-cultural markers, why were Americans so fearful of being marked?”
It must be said at the outset that the book is not so much a narrative as a book of ideas. Having established that, Hollander works very freely among such diverse forms as story, memoir, fable, and pages of transcript from the House Un-American Affairs Committee (his commentary on the HUAC interviews with Bertolt Brecht are particularly fascinating). The book’s unusual form picks up rhythm as it goes. The constants are Carlos’s real and imagined conversations with his friends, family, and artistic heroes. As a young man, he hears his fellow Carlos, the poet William Carlos Williams, saying, “don’t intellectualize it, if you get the gasworks into a poem, you’ve got America, boy. Get it?” Carlos doesn’t get it—and not getting it both haunts him and gives exuberance to the constant wonder with which he confronts his adopted homeland.
Carlos’s wonder distinguishes him from Americans themselves, who seem to view his questions as a potential drag on their zooming progress upward. While their conversations sing when they are among themselves, Carlos and his friends are still burdened by the knowledge that they are Old-World. Nobody has any stake in receiving their perspectives, because America’s direction is forward. This gives the book a tragic feel. Running throughout the book is a question about what trade-off is involved in becoming American—a trade-off with many dimensions: emotional, psychological, economic, political. Carlos is trying to find these answers in an America that does not want to answer him directly, very possibly because it does not know itself.
Perhaps the most unique perspective belongs to Carlos’s Uncle Leopold. A convert to Islam, he cultivates in his nephew the notion that the conflict between America and Islam is due to the similarity in their value systems. According to Uncle Leopold, the Muslim ideal of “a brotherhood of men united not by ties of blood or race but by the consciousness of a common outlook on life and common aspirations” finds its closest reflection in the American belief in “a thousand noble currents all pouring into one.”
Ideas like this, which bring Carlos so far as to articulate even that “the Heart of Islam is American,” are an indication of how free Hollander is as a writer, how far he is willing to stretch to untraveled places. He does this with great sincerity, almost naively, like Carlos himself, believing that everyone is as interested as he is in such journeys into the unknown. These journeys are largely intellectual ones, but because Carlos takes in all he sees and hears around him in an almost child-like way, they have a strong and clear emotional core. Whether or not Carlos’s journey feels finally complete, it is well worth it to travel with him.