July 08, 1985 12:00 PM

by Lore Segal

This wonderful novel is peopled with exotic characters who never in the world should meet, yet they do and all sorts of astonishing things happen. Ilka is a young Jewish woman from Austria. Her father has been killed by the Nazis and her mother is lost. A cousin has brought Ilka to New York and helped her get a job. Bewildered by the language and everything else about America, Ilka takes a train west and in a bar in Nevada meets a big, bluff, friendly man—her first American of the title—who says he will call her when he gets to New York. He is black, a columnist for the Harlem Herald and much older than Ilka. His name is Carter Bayoux and his friends—Ilka meets them all—include mixed couples. It is Carter who teaches Ilka about this country, about racism, religion, the Three Stooges and about love and generosity. She also learns what it is like to love a man who is a pitiful, chronic alcoholic. Segal is a professor at the University of Illinois and this is her third novel. She has imagination enough to create a cult of young people who believe that “hope is the root of all evil,” and she is the kind of writer who can fix a visual image of a character with a single sentence: “Her smile stuck to the top of her teeth.” This book is boldly comic and full of startling scenes—to read it is to be exhilarated. It’s also the kind of incredibly rich book that can make a reader pause and examine his beliefs about racism, religion, the Three Stooges and—most of all—America the amazing. (Knopf, $15.95)

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