Ellen Litman’s literary debut, The Last Chicken in America (Norton, $23.95) consists of twelve linked stories set in a Russian-Jewish immigrant enclave in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Litman’s writing is sharp, often funny and always poignant, especially as she captures the alienation of the immigrant experience: teenagers turned into caregivers for their own parents; engineers and biologists remade into house cleaners and welfare recipients; the great escape of America transformed into the deadening provinciality of Squirrel Hill’s Russian community.
“Immigration distorts people,” muses Masha, one of Litman’s most engaging narrators. In the opening story Masha is a lonely teenager, lost among immigrants. When Alick, a fellow Russian- Jewish émigré, befriends her, she abandons her ideals to his desires, so desperate is she for friendship and guidance. Midway through the collection we meet Masha again, this time as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh. Though she loves Russian literature, Masha devotes herself to computer programming — the only acceptable major in her community. In the last story, Masha, now in her twenties, has found her way to a Ph.D. in Slavic Literature. But when her best friend from her ESL days, Lariska, abandons her career to marry her Squirrel Hill cousin, Masha must confront her own prejudices.
Other characters struggle with what Masha dubs the “immigrant mentality.” Tanya, trapped in a dull marriage, dreams of her husband’s friend Senya, a visiting dancer. But that promise of escape and romance proves an illusion when Senya accepts a banking job in Montreal. Natasha, abandoned by her husband, subjects herself to the set-ups of friends despite her disgust for the Russian men they choose: “they are weak, these men. Dispirited. Damaged by the immigration.” Meanwhile, Misha longs for love within the quiet of his anonymous cubicle; “When I spoke,” he says of his co-workers, who call him Mike, “their faces took on a strained, concerned expression, as if I were someone with special needs.”
“The Last Chicken in America” is billed as “a novel in stories,” but this designation does Litman’s work a disservice. The 12 stories are connected — everyone strolls down Murray Avenue, shops at the Giant Eagle Supermarket, and struggles with the loss of identity that accompanies immigration. But they never coalesce into a larger narrative. And when in the final story, “Home,” nearly all of Litman’s characters re-appear at a local wedding, the connection feels forced. This is a shame, as so many of her stories are truly terrific on their own.
The sad joke of Litman’s title is that there is no last chicken in America — the freezers of America are filled with chickens. The challenge for each of her characters is to move beyond survival into the possibility of joy.
Ilana Stanger-Ross, a New Yorker transplanted to Victoria, BC, is an immigrant of sorts. Her first novel, Sima’s Undergarments for Women, is forthcoming from Overlook Press in October 2008.