Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers follows a Cameroonian family as they immigrate to the United States in the years before the financial collapse of 2008. This debut novel explores the complicated relationships between where we’re from and where we end up living, between love and family, sacrifice and reward.
Jende Jonga leaves Limbe, Cameroon for the US in 2004 and secures a job as a livery cab driver three years before his wife and son’s immigration. With the help of his cousin, Jende becomes a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, an associate at Lehman Brothers. When Jende arrived in the US, at the advice of his immigration lawyer, he applied for asylum, with an invented story of persecution at the hands of his father-in-law, a plan which quickly falls apart. Jende’s wife, Neni, travels to the country on an academic visa, with hopes of becoming a pharmacist. The financial crisis is steadily approaching, but Mbue places personal road bumps for the Jongas along the way, foregrounding their struggles.
Mbue uses Jende’s career to juxtapose the life of an immigrant family against the life of a Wall Street family. The Edwardses are not what you’d expect: their enlightened, corporate-condemning son, Vince; Mighty, their unplanned ten-year-old, innocently unaware of his own financial privilege (during a visit to the Jongas’, he excitedly observes, “Wow, everyone gets to sleep in the same bedroom here, how cool!”); the mother Cindy’s hidden depression and alcoholism; and Clark’s secret rendezvouses with call girls at a Chelsea hotel. Meanwhile, the Jongas struggle to afford their one-bedroom Harlem apartment, which transforms from a symbol of hope to one of poverty rather abruptly. Even the Edwards’ friends are oblivious to America’s true economic realities, with one wondering (post-collapse) how bad it could get, would their friends be “flying coach and selling vacation homes”?
Behold the Dreamers feels as though it’s needed right now: a novel about the strife of the immigrant, often overlooked or ignored, in the midst of an influx of refugees. It is hard for Mbue to overstate how difficult it is for Jende to find and hold a well-paying job, often working until or after midnight for a salary of thirty-five thousand a year. With Neni in school, the Jongas struggle to find a way to make ends meet on one minimum-wage salary and Neni working only intermittently. When Neni becomes pregnant, despite all their joy, their difficulties are only exacerbated. As Jende becomes more and more troubled, Neni recognizes that his actions are not his own, but those of a “grotesque being created by the sufferings of an American immigrant life.”
Perhaps even more poignant, however, are the many examinations of being black in the United States. In New York, Neni and Jende celebrate the election of Barack Obama with tears “that the son of an African now ruled the world.” Before their arrival, they believed in the America they saw on television, in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Cosby Show, an America where “blacks had the same chance at prosperity as whites.” But the America they found was less rewarding. The lives of the Huxtables and the Bankses are not the lives of the ordinary black family. Jende becomes cynical before Neni: of the church she finds, which she describes as abundantly accepting, he says, “Those kind of white people are always trying to prove to their friends how much they like black people.” Jende’s cousin defends a lie in his recommendation of Jende to Clark by saying, “You think a black man gets a good job in this country by sitting in front of white people and telling the truth?” It’s not enough, the Jongas soon learn, to become citizens. The cynicism that creeps into Behold the Dreamers is not subtle or slow. It’s a sudden reversal, as sudden as the 2008 crisis itself.
Mbue’s debut novel builds slowly to the financial collapse and once that wave crests, Behold the Dreamers spirals toward its end in a series of collapses: job losses and deaths and the loss of hope. As one chapter folds into the next, Mbue’s characters become increasingly erratic and compulsive. The changes are sudden and jarring and cannot simply be excused by the circumstances of the crisis. Behold the Dreamers is a long novel that oftentimes forgets what’s at stake for its characters, instead progressing plot through overheard conversations and one-sided phone calls. It’s a crutch that quickly becomes tedious, as it feels more like a wink to the reader than actual information. Out of convenience or necessity, Clark one day leaves his phone on speaker in the back of the Lincoln and Jende overhears Clark predict the collapse to his boss, Clark falling just short of understanding its far-reaching impact. “What’s crazy is thinking we’re going to survive doing business this way,” he says, as if Mbue needed a mouthpiece to show the reader, definitively, what was ahead.
Even so, the novel manages to surprise in its final chapter, the last collapse of them all. Its saddening final pages still somehow seem to be brimming with hope and optimism. Despite everything, the Jongas show us the meaning of true love, in an America that was never welcoming. Behold the Dreamers is a debut worth reading, a story that demands to be told, from a perspective that is often wrongfully ignored.
Publication Date: August 23, 2016
Publisher: Random House
Reviewed by Cole Meyer