The Other Americans Laila Lalami (2019)
Exactly who are “the other Americans” in Laila Lalami’s novel of that title? She introduces multiple narrators, each of whom could be categorized as “other.”
Driss, a Moroccan immigrant who runs a diner, is a ghostly presence in many ways. On the first page he dies in a late-night hit-and-run accident, yet we get his back story piecemeal in chapters throughout the book.
Efraín, a Mexican doing landscaping in this California desert town, witnesses the accident but is afraid to come forward because of his undocumented status. We follow his crisis of conscience over many weeks.
Anderson, a prime suspect in the accident case, is an elderly white guy who runs the bowling alley next door to Driss’s diner. He sees himself as ostracized in a corporatized and increasingly diverse society.
Nora, Driss’s adult daughter, is convinced that her father was not killed accidentally but murdered, and she pushes the police to dig deeper into the evidence. As a musician, she finds some acceptance in the jazz community, despite her brown skin.
Coleman, an African American police detective, is assigned to the accident case. She’s smart and savvy, but she struggles at home in raising her teen stepson.
Jeremy, another police officer, is a veteran of the Iraq War who clearly suffers from PTSD. Early in the novel he becomes Nora’s boyfriend, and their relationship anchors a significant sub-plot.
The list of characters goes on, and Lalami integrates the disparate narrative perspectives smoothly as she disentangles the mystery of Driss’s death. All her characters (even Anderson in his way) are outsiders, with personal histories that define them in opposition to the people around them. A sense of otherness can arise from many sources, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender, immigration status, woundedness, or occupation.
Although the ensemble cast of The Other Americans is very large, the characters are fully fleshed out, with distinct voices. I really wanted Lalami to broaden each of their stories, although I know that this would have cluttered the novel and distracted from the main plot. She does provide a brief and tantalizing wrapup of the hit-and-run accident, several years out, from Nora’s point of view.
I got to know these Americans; I sympathized with many of them and wished them well. Good novels do that to a reader.