In 2008, the investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for the largest bankruptcy in American history. It took just hours for the catastrophic effects of the company's failure to become apparent to ordinary people all across the world, even ones who had never before heard terms like "subprime mortgage" and "collateralized debt obligation."
Jende Jonga and his wife, Neni, two of the main characters in Imbolo Mbue's excellent debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, are among those people. Her book isn't the first work of fiction to grapple with the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, but it's surely one of the best.
Jende and Neni have recently immigrated to America from the city of Limbe in Cameroon, hoping to build a better life for their young son, Liomi, a sweet and sensitive six-year-old who idolizes his father.
They're barely able to make ends meet. Neni works as a home health aide while attending college — she dreams of one day enrolling in pharmacy school — while Jende drives a cab. Their luck changes suddenly, though, when Jende finds work as a personal chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive named Clark Edwards and his family. The hours are long, but the salary is a massive improvement over his previous job.
Clark grows to trust Jende, and Neni eventually takes a temporary job cleaning and cooking at the Edwards' second home. It doesn't take long before Jende and Neni both learn that the Edwards' marriage isn't as perfect as it might seem. This becomes painfully apparent after Lehman Brothers declares bankruptcy just weeks before what would become a historic presidential election.
Meanwhile, Jende is forced to confront problems of his own. While his wife is in America on a student visa, he's in the country waiting for his asylum application to be approved. But he's not really facing persecution in his home country, and he's hoping the smooth-talking immigration lawyer he's hired can persuade a judge otherwise.
He can't bear the thought of returning to Cameroon. When he talks about America, it's with rapturous joy, and an unflinching belief in the promise of his adopted country. "America has something for everyone, sir," he enthuses to Clark. "Look at Obama, sir. Who is his mother? Who is his father? They are not big people in the government. ... The man is a black man with no father or mother, trying to be president over a country!"
Those who lived through the turbulent final years of the George W. Bush administration remember that it brought out the worst in a lot of people — not just in the bankers and politicians who let the crisis occur in the first place, but in ordinary citizens brought to the edge by the threat of financial ruin.
Mbue realizes this, and she does not pull punches. Behold the Dreamers is, at times, hard to read — not because of her writing, which is excellent, but because the characters keep getting hit, over and over again, by horrible circumstances beyond their control. Jende is reminded that "bad news has a way of slithering into good days and making a mockery of complacent joys;" Neni feels "crushed" by her own feelings of helplessness, "the fact that she had traveled to America only to be reminded of how powerless she was, how unfair life could be."
Behold the Dreamers isn't a satire, but it's frequently caustic, and Mbue can be unsparing in her depiction of the elite who didn't see their very existence threatened by the financial collapse. In one scene, Clark's wife commiserates with a wealthy friend about the crisis. Her friend's priorities are almost comically misplaced: "But it's scary how bad this could get," she says, "When people start talking about flying coach and selling vacation homes ..."
That's not to say Mbue doesn't lack compassion for her characters — while some are oblivious, they have real problems of their own, and she's never cruel or condescending. Mbue's heart is with the Jonga family, torn between their love for — and disappointment with — America. But it's also with the Edwards family, unable to cope with the thought that their days of privilege might soon be coming to an end.
Behold the Dreamers is a remarkable debut. Mbue is a wonderful writer with an uncanny ear for dialogue — there are no false notes here, no narrative shortcuts, and certainly no manufactured happy endings. It's a novel that depicts a country both blessed and doomed, on top of the world, but always at risk of losing its balance. It is, in other words, quintessentially American.