By Ian MacKenzie
240 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $26.
The novel of the ugly American living abroad has bloomed into a genre all its own, one I happen to devour with relish. Among my favorites are Charles Portis’s “Gringos,” Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station” and Nell Zink’s “The Wallcreeper.” Ian MacKenzie’s second novel arrives as a worthy addition to that list. “Feast Days” is told from the point of view of the bored American wife of an investment banker newly arrived in São Paulo.
The Massachusetts-born MacKenzie, who has lived in Ethiopia and Brazil, acknowledges on the first page how much his story participates in this literary tradition. “We were Americans abroad,” his narrator, Emma, tells us. “We weren’t the doomed travelers in a Paul Bowles novel, and we weren’t the idealists or the malarial, religion-damaged burnouts in something by Greene; but we were people far from home nevertheless.”
Emma refers to herself as a “trailing spouse,” someone along for the ride in her partner’s career. She has quit her public relations job in New York and, because she doesn’t speak much Portuguese or possess the kind of visa necessary for gainful employment in Brazil, she has a great deal of time on her hands. There’s little to do during the day beyond socializing with the spouses of her husband’s colleagues, doing some off-the-books English tutoring and drinking a lot of wine. Every so often, she volunteers at a church where some Haitians have sought refuge, even though at one point she calls herself “a white woman … conditioned to see any group of dark-skinned men as a threat.”
To make matters worse, Emma doesn’t especially like São Paulo, which she describes as “always in the throes of something,” a place where everything “was intimately juxtaposed — favela and high-rise, crack dealer and opera house.” The city reminds her of “what Americans used to think the future would look like — gleaming and decrepit at once.”
Emma’s life grows more complicated when her husband, would-be friends and society at large all seem to conspire to pressure her to have a child, even though she’s not sure motherhood is for her. The mass demonstrations and riots in advance of the 2014 World Cup add more complications to her personal ones, as does the rising likelihood of marital infidelity. There’s also a criminal investigation at her husband’s bank and widespread public concern about government corruption that fuels even more protests.
Edward Said once described exile as “the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: Its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” However true that may be, it applies far more to the struggling Haitians, who are beaten and robbed for being “Africanos,” than to the novel’s less-than-humble narrator. MacKenzie recognizes that Emma’s self-imposed exile creates a different kind of rift entirely, a “privileged kind of displacement” that could easily be repaired with an airline ticket.
In 1995, an American newspaper editor in Budapest told me I could differentiate between economic migrants and expatriates by the kinds of parties they — or, more correctly, we — attended. That obnoxious comment came back to me while reading “Feast Days.” The willful us-versus-them otherness in which these Americans participate threatens to blind them to the shared humanity that binds banker and revolutionary, policeman and protester. MacKenzie makes clear what Emma might not always see: that her life stands in stark contrast to those of both newly arrived Haitians and impoverished Brazilians. Expatriate novels often reveal far more about their characters’ homelands than they do about their presumably exotic destinations. “Feast Days” does likewise.