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I Pity the Poor Immigrant: A Novel BY Zachary Lazar. Little, Brown and Company. Hardcover, 256 pages. $25.

The cover of I Pity the Poor Immigrant: A Novel

The writer Barry Hannah used to say that even though Bob Dylan can’t sing, he has the desperation of not being able to sing, which is better than being Glen Campbell, who can sing. Of course, there’s something patronizing here: Even if Dylan can’t sing, he can do a lot of other things well. And anyway, he can sing. Just not like your average crooner.

All of which puts me in mind of Zachary Lazar’s new novel, I Pity the Poor Immigrant, which takes an unorthodox and almost scrappy approach to polemicizing about the lives of its four main characters. The book is named, I presume, after track 9 on Dylan’s ’67 album, John Wesley Harding. The song is about . . . well, here’s the first verse:

I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home
Who uses all his power to do evil
But in the end is always left so alone
That man whom with his fingers cheats
And who lies with ev’ry breath
Who passionately hates his life
And likewise, fears his death.

Lazar’s novel is full of such characters: the poor, the powerful, liars, and haters—immigrants in the literal and metaphorical sense of the word. We begin with Hannah Groff, a writer who’s taken an interest in the death of an Israeli poet. While gathering material for a piece about this writer, Hannah’s project exceeds its mandate and turns into a book about multiple characters and, indeed, about Hannah herself.

Like Lazar’s previous novel, Sway, based in part on real people—Kenneth Anger, Charles Manson, the Rolling Stones—I Pity the Poor Immigrant features some well-known cultural icons, notably Meyer Lansky, the notorious gangster who colonized Las Vegas in the ’40s. Lansky immigrates to New York City from Grodno, Belarus, as a boy and later attempts to immigrate to Israel in 1972 to escape federal tax-evasion charges. Other characters include the fictional Gila Konig, who leaves Israel for New York, and the poet David Bellen, who’s estranged from the myth of Israel as the Promised Land.

Hannah travels through these lives like an interloper, attempting to co-opt them into a story that holds together while still admitting to its own improbability: Hannah is writing about David Bellen; Bellen wrote extensively about Jewish gangsters, especially Meyer Lansky; Lansky had an affair with Gila, who also had an affair with Hannah’s father and, Hannah learns during her research, with Bellen. In this way, Lazar’s novel is hugely invested in how stories ramify and finally map onto each other.

If Hannah’s project reveals how multiple lives converge, it also plays up the impossibility of rendering a single life with authority. She announces from the start her desire to write a memoir “without a self. A memoir about somebody other than ‘me.’” She wants it known that “the story of other people connected to ‘me’ might communicate more than the usual ‘me,’ might show the cultural context of ‘me,’ might even cast doubt on the viability of ‘me.’” Hannah wants to equate estrangement from self, or at least the bifurcated self, with the Israeli term yored. Yored: Descended. Corrupted. Condemned to what Bellen calls “a personal diaspora of fantasies, rumors, wishes, fears.” In keeping with the fragmented and incoherent self depicted by the memoirist, Hannah and the novel itself reject traditional narrative for pastiche and collage. A jumpy time line. Photos of various places in Israel, “found text,” text culled from actual books about Lansky, “essays,” vignettes, short sections that alight from topic to topic. “A cubist jumble,” as Hannah puts it, that is perhaps slightly desperate to succeed. This isn’t Glen Campbell doing a bildungsroman, but Dylan trying to unseat what is staid about fiction’s engagement with stories that resist classification.

Lansky presents as a forlorn refugee in the twilight of his life, seeking asylum in the Holy Land; he is evicted from Israel and squanders his fortune so that he cannot afford treatment for his disabled son, Buddy. Bellen presents similarly: He has a troubled son, a heroin addict, and finds himself contending with Israel as a questionable place of refuge. He’s written an extended poem that envisions King David as a modern Jewish gangster who ends up murdered for his crimes, both political and personal. Bellen’s Israel—Hannah’s, too—is ugly with strife. “It’s 2004,” Bellen writes, “and the fighting is general now—suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israel, targeted assassinations and armored raids on Gaza and the West Bank. Operation Rainbow, Operation Days of Penitence—dead children, dead civilians, dead soldiers, dead terrorists.” The opposite of yored is oleh: ascended. But does immigrating to the country as he describes it sound like being oleh? Instead, Bellen, it seems, makes a better case for the unheimlich being an apt way to think about immigrants—about selfhood—in terms of the strange, the uncanny: at home nowhere, least of all with yourself.

Central to the novel’s project, then, is a look at how Lansky, Bellen, Gila, and Hannah intersect and don’t, and how each finds in Israel “a few moments of respite in a country that, perhaps more than any other, foregrounds the transience of our lives.” I Pity the Poor Immigrant excels when it allows this project to rise up naturally from the stories Bellen and Gila have to tell us, and derives much of its heat and pathos from its sections on Lansky and his son. The novel is less successful when it draws attention to its observations, as Hannah often does, perhaps because she is aware of all the ways we might not be connecting the dots with her. But we do connect the dots, which coalesce in a snippet from Bellen’s essay “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” It is a quote attributed to Menachem Begin about people in Tel Aviv on Hanukkah: “They were a people with their own food, their own dances, their own music, their own language, a people like any other people, at ease in their home. You didn’t realize how deformed you were until you saw all that and failed to become a part of it.”

Fiona Maazel is the author of the novels Last Last Chance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008) and Woke Up Lonely (Graywolf Press, 2013).