Book of the Week: Molly Antopol’s ‘The UnAmericans’

Aspiring authors are taught to write what they know, but just how long a writer keeps doing that is up to their discretion. When you look at the work of one of the preeminent fiction writers of the last half-century, Philip Roth, a pattern emerges: he’s writing about himself (sometimes literally, making a young Philip Roth the protagonist of his brilliant work of historical fiction, The Plot Against America, for instance), or some alternate version of himself or other Jewish men he knows, in nearly every single book.

Of course, this writing within an identity isn’t only prevalent among Jewish writers. Some Southern writers write Southern, some WASPs write WASP, others spend careers giving us immigrant stories, long after they’ve settled in America. You write what you know, and before he retired, Roth wrote Jewish.

Reading Molly Antopol’s debut short story collection, The UnAmericans, it’s tempting to pronounce that Antopol is also writing Jewish, because her stories revolve almost entirely around Jewish subjects. But while she seems to be writing about people she’s known, things she’s experienced, and stories she’s heard, it’s also immediately evident that Antopol is an author less concerned with representing a certain type of people than with writing human stories. The characters in The UnAmericans are Jews, but their struggles, joys, and sorrows are universal. This is due, in large part, to the fact that Antopol has found the magic potion that allows her to write original stories without reinventing the wheel. She makes everyday people and their circumstances shine bright.

The UnAmericans takes us from the days of the McCarthyist Communist witch hunt to Israel, and a grandmother’s story about hiding in the forests of Eastern Europe during World War II as part of the “Yiddish Underground” resistance group. She introduces us to Eva Kaplan, a Jewish socialite whose heyday was “back in the sixties and seventies,” and what befalls her family after her death. (I would gladly read an entire book about Eva’s exploits in her better days, if Antopol is taking requests.)

The author’s touch is light, never banging us over the head with dense prose, plots that are difficult to follow, or flights of lyrical fancy. Instead, she gives us an older man, his background, and the Ukrainian woman he’s sweet on. The story unfolds in a matter of pages, and as soon as it’s finished, Antopol has packed in a novel’s worth of heartbreak. That’s the sign of a writer who is truly comfortable with the stories — not the “Jewish stories” or even the “short stories,” just the stories — she’s writing.