Her First American

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Twenty-one year old Ilka Weissnix arrives in Yew York after a lifetime as a refugee in war-torn Europe. Yet the New York surrounding her cousin Fishgoppel’s apartment is peopled with refugees like herself, making it more Viennese than American. In search of the real America, Ilka takes a train West. On her way home, she meets Carter Bayoux, a black journalist whose alcoholism has destroyed a promising career. It is Carter who introduces Ilka to America: He takes her to jazz clubs in Harlem and concerts at Carnegie Hall, they attend the Jet Fashion Ball and a Fifth Avenue wedding.

As Ilka comes to know her new country, she encounters prejudice against blacks and the prejudice of blacks toward whites. In the process, she also learns more about herself as a Jew. Yet as Ilka grows more Americanized, Carter sinks deeper into his alcoholic miasma. The scenes describing his bourbon-soaked bouts of insomnia are painfully real. Indeed, all of the characterizations in this novel are utterly real. Segal, has perfectly captured Ilka’s innocent quest for naturalization and Carter’s self-destructive binges. Even minor characters such as Ilka’s mother, driven mad by her experiences in the Holocaust, or Ferdinand Zambizi, an African ambassador married to Carter’s former wife, who has just discovered that his government has been overthrown, are beautifully realized.

Segal, the author of two other novels and several children’s books, is herself originally from Vienna. On one level, she has produced a sparkling narrative that moves rapidly from situation to situation, but, on a second level, she has presented her readers with a wry and accurate look at what it means to become an American.