In his powerful new novel, Elia Kazan takes up the life of the young Greek from Anatolia whose early years he chronicled in his first and highly acclaimed novel, America America, giving us the story of a man caught between two worlds and fighting to make a place for himself within them.
We enter the story of 1909. Stavros Topouzoglou—Joe Arness to his American friends—is meeting the freighter that has brought his family to America. This day marks the culmination of a lifetime of responsibility. Steeled by his harsh life, proud and resourceful, he has nonetheless been governed by the age-old rules of filial duty: putting aside his own needs and desires, he obediently took on the fulfillment of his father’s dream of safety and salvation for their family. For a decade he has worked to bring his family to America—an America that has hypnotized and motivated him with its promise of money and power and privilege. But as the family disembarks there is one person missing: his father is dead. Suddenly, Stavros is caught between two powerful and opposing influences. On one side is his family: seven brothers and sisters and his mother look to him for guidance, strength, and support, drawing him back into the ways and tenets of the “old” country. On the other side, the bright-seeming, golden possibilities of the “new” world of America, possibilities that Stavros has only glimpsed from afar, but that he has determined to attain.
Stavros is not prepared for this clash of cultures, nor for the emotional turmoil it produces in him. He has always believed that through sheer will and energy he could achieve anything, but now even his ferocious, unswerving drive cannot sustain him. And so we see him dutifully assume the patriarchal position in the family, only to witness the foundation of family devotion, respect, and love broken down by the terrifying yet heady exigencies of this new life. We see Stavros passionately drawn to Althea Perry, imagining her to be a key to his acceptance into the society he yearns for, but finding instead that she is a constant reminder of the obstacles he must continually face and the sacrifices of pride he must be prepared to make. We see Stavros slowly ingratiating himself with Fernand Sarrafian—the man he most admires, the man with the kind of power Stavros wants for himself—only to learn that Sarrafian’s power is tainted with greed, deceit, and an almost total lack of humaneness. We see how often Stavros must invoke the words his father said to him as a boy: “If you don’t allow yourself to feel it, the shame does not exist.” We see him confronted by his brother—just returned from fighting for a Greater Greece—whose words to Stavros reverberate with both love and accusation: “I’m thinking of you at night. What you were once, what you are now . . . When we first came here, I was so proud of you . . . Now all you care about is how to make money.” And it is these words that finally force Stavros to acknowledge the devastating impurities in his dream of an American life, to see how completely he’s lost himself in his blind attempt to attain that dream. And he is compelled to devise a plan by which he can redeem not only himself, his family, and the memory of his father, but also—even if only in the smallest measure—the love for his homeland that he begins to feel with renewed fervor and empassioned dedication.
In the story of Stavros, Elia Kazan not only gives us a vividly wrought picture of one man’s struggle to understand his dreams, but he reveals, as well, what it has meant for the immigrant to confront America, and, more importantly, what it has meant for him to confront himself in this seductive, yet often inimical, culture.
From the Hardcover edition.
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, May 2012
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