>The New Yorker: "Assimilation" by E.L. Doctorow


Another story NOT available to non-subscribers (but next week’s is, so take heart!).
Ramon is a smart guy. His brother, at the beginning of the story, is in prison. Even in prison, though, he has access to information, and at the end of the story he looks like he has access to the kind of protection Ramon is going to need. Because our hero has pissed off the Russian (or some other unspecified East European) mob and things are going to get ugly.
Ramon, looking for money for graduate school but trying to avoid his brother’s world, takes a job as a dishwasher in Borislov’s restaurant. He’s promoted to bus boy—he’s being set up—and then to waiter, if he will agree to a green-card marriage. He heads to Russia (or wherever), marries Jelena, and then works with her at the restaurant. He decides he’s in love with Jelena, although she has a boyfriend at home and treats Ramon badly. Borislov and his mob friends put pressure on Ramon to make sure that Jelena will get her papers. Jelena, softening toward Ramon, tells him he should beat her, that she deserves it, but Ramon’s brother clues him in: if he beats her, or if they can make it look as though he beats her, they can cut him out of the picture that much earlier because the court will grant a divorce and Jelena will be free.
At this point, the reader—this reader, anyway—suspects that Jelena is in cahoots with the mobsters. Instead, though [spoiler alert], she agrees to run away with Ramon, and they head straight to Ramon’s brother, the only one with the firepower to protect them.
Uh oh. But that’s the end of the story. It’s going to get nasty, probably, but we’re not going to get to see it. Unless this is a novel excerpt. But I don’t even want to think that.
So it’s a readable story with a somewhat sentimental, unexpected ending that leaves a major question unanswered. It’s okay. Not my favorite, but okay. What’s okay about it is that Ramon is forced, for the sake of the girl, to enter his brother’s world, and it’s obviously a tough choice for him. It may still end badly for him, but it’s the kind of difficult decision that is interesting to see in fiction. I also like the multiple meanings of the title. What’s not so great, though, is that Ramon’s feelings for the girl are kind of a cliché. Sure, go through with the fraud, even feel sorry for her because she’s in a tough spot herself, but fall in love? I’m not buying that.
Also worth checking out for more insights into this story is Deborah Treisman’s chat with Doctorow: This Week in Fiction.
November 22, 2010: “Assimilation” by E.L. Doctorow

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