“I have always had two ideas: that one day I would have to write about my father’s story, and that if I ever did so I would never be able to write another thing again.” This sentence appears near the beginning of Zachary Lazar’s 2009 memoir Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder, and is then elaborated further. “What story could compare with his? The question was a more specific case of a larger dilemma: What could I ever do that would not seem trivial compared to what he went through?”
Lazar’s father was killed when the writer was six years old, shot by two hit men in a parking garage in Phoenix, Arizona, soon after his first day of testimony to a grand jury about his former business partner’s illegal land deals. The book that Lazar wrote about it is a memoir in the tradition of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972), in which the author, through a mixture of research and imagination, attempts to recreate the life of a parent—in Lazar’s case, one whom he barely got to know. He writes that the moment the police arrived to inform his mother of her husband’s death is when “the current span of my memory really begins, in fits and starts, as if some clock in my mind had been reset to zero that day.”
In his next book, the 2014 novel I Pity the Poor Immigrant (he’s got a thing for Dylan lyrics), a journalist character suggests something about Lazar’s own priorities when she describes her desire for a
memoir about somebody other than “me.” An understanding that the story of other people connected to “me” might communicate more than the usual “me,” might show the cultural context of “me,” might even cast doubt on the viability of “me.”
There is a consistent modesty in Lazar’s approach to narrative. Even when he is writing in the first person as himself (or someone very like him, as in his 2018 novel Vengeance), his stories look outward rather than engaging in a deep examination of his inner life. Considered in the long aftermath of his father’s death, the emotional coolness of Lazar’s work reads as an act of self-protection.
Evening’s Empire was evidently produced at great psychic cost—Lazar bluntly describes kneeling in the exact place where his father was murdered, and the book reproduces a blurry photograph he took in the parking garage, illegible because of how badly his hands were shaking. The portrait of his father too is, inevitably, blurred. The fundamental mystery of why a risk-averse CPA, described as “not a big talker” by his old friends, went into business with a shady land developer is never quite resolved—“It has something to do with his having a secretive side” is one of Lazar’s cryptic speculations. With many of the central participants in the story long dead, he is left, after sifting through mountains of transcripts and records, to speculate.
“I think perhaps they killed him simply to show they could do it,” he writes near the end of the book, just before he imaginatively recreates, in exacting detail, the murder itself. A strange hybrid of memorial and crime procedural, Evening’s Empire comes to feel like an enactment of ritual for the writer. In an additional “conversation” published in the paperback edition, Lazar quibbles with a question about whether or not writing the book was “cathartic.” He describes catharsis as a “fleeting, delicate state of mind,” and, as such, “actually the opposite of ‘closure.’” Not that he’s looking for closure: “I’ve never understood how this is any different from forgetting or just not thinking or feeling.”
Evening’s Empire did not prove to be, as he’d feared, the last thing he wrote. Instead, it seemed to open up additional ways of addressing the difficult questions that book raised and productively failed to answer. Lazar has been particularly interested in the aftermath of trauma, and in the question of forgiveness for its perpetrators: whether it’s possible or justified, and, if so, what form it might take. There is a sense, throughout his work, of a writer circling a subject, trying in different forms to understand the meaning of an event that he’ll never fully comprehend.
In his earlier books, the method involved historical and political excavation. Sway (2008), the novel that preceded Evening’s Empire, deals with the Manson Family murders and the early years of the Rolling Stones, and I Pity the Poor Immigrant grapples with the crimes of the gangster Meyer Lansky, the denial of Lansky’s application for Israeli citizenship, and the murder of a (fictional) journalist in the West Bank. Lazar’s two most recent novels confront contemporary life with a sense of immediacy that those earlier books don’t attempt. While less formally complex in some ways than his collage-like historical novels, these recent books demonstrate a newfound narrative confidence without sacrificing the moral ambiguity that gives his writing its distinct charge.
This shift began with Vengeance, to my mind his best novel. It chronicles the relationship between a Lazar-like writer and a character named Kendrick King, a Black man who is serving a life sentence for murder in Louisiana’s Angola prison. While Lazar’s previous books played, to some extent, with the boundaries of genre—Evening’s Empire contains enough long stretches of imagined action that it could have been justifiably categorized as fiction; much of Sway tracks so closely with the actual doings of the Rolling Stones that it verges on biographical essay—Vengeance is his first book to explicitly blur the line between what’s true and what isn’t.
The novel is dedicated to and contains photographs by Deborah Luster, an artist best known for her portraits of incarcerated people, and whose mother was murdered, like Lazar’s father, in a contract killing. A character named Deborah, who fits that description, is also the catalyst for the novel’s action, since her visit with the narrator to a prison performance of the Passion play The Life of Jesus Christ is the occasion for the narrator’s meeting Kendrick. Kendrick’s alleged crime is detailed exhaustively—the book contains supposed newspaper clippings about it, as well as invented trial and interrogation transcripts—but according to Lazar he is “a composite of different people I met as well as fully imagined stuff on my part.” From early in Vengeance, Lazar draws attention to the methods he’ll be using: “What I seem to resist is the idea that the real and the imaginary don’t bleed into each other. Perhaps this is because what really happens in the world so often belies any notion of ‘realism.’”
The blur of real and imaginary characters is created so persuasively that, rather than forming a distraction, it feels central to the novel’s ideas. Kendrick claims he is innocent of the second-degree murder charges that sent him to prison, for his involvement in the killing of a man in an apartment complex, apparently to get money to buy heroin. A large part of the novel is given over to the narrator puzzling through the question of Kendrick’s possible guilt by imagining this crime from a multitude of angles, comparing the likelihood of various proposed scenarios.
The narrator tells us early on that he still doesn’t know whether Kendrick had anything to do with the murder; we know there will be no resolution of the mystery. The narrator’s uncertainty regarding the truth of Kendrick’s story is then echoed by our uncertainty about the “reality” of the material we’re reading. The author’s exacting, somewhat formal first-person voice is crucial for maintaining a sense of narrative stability and momentum; while the exploration of the nature of objective “truth” is postmodern, the style is journalistic, dependable.
Vengeance is unusual in that it’s a work of autofiction that attempts to depict and understand a character, in Kendrick King, whose experience is vastly different from that of the author. Ben Lerner’s most recent novel, The Topeka School (2019), which moves from his earlier novels’ depictions of the interior life of a Lerner-like writer to the perspectives of his parents and a violent young man, exists in the same conceptual world as Lazar’s. But as the white, middle-class son of a murder victim, Lazar seems to be doing something more radical in identifying with a poor, Black man who is the alleged perpetrator of a killing. The narrator begins the book naively imagining that, given his experience, some kind of personal transformation might be expected: “I thought that by interpreting this play about the possibility of redemption in the wake of violence, Deborah and I might somehow enact ‘a kind of redemption of our own.’”
At the end of the book, after engaging at length with the unsolvable morass of Kendrick’s story and of the carceral state at large, the possibility of anything as simple as “redemption” seems far out of reach:
You can spend your life here for killing your girlfriend and setting her house on fire, or for killing someone like my father for money, or you can spend it here for doing nothing at all, an innocent person, or an exemplary one, like Kendrick, or like the protagonist of The Life of Jesus Christ.
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
I’ve thought about that phrase many times and I’m still not sure whom it refers to or what it can possibly mean in this time and place.
It’s a knowingly inadequate conclusion, and an honest one. The value of the narrator’s relationship with Kendrick is an end in itself. He has gained knowledge of the world, and he has seen photographs of the murder victim with his children and of his body at the crime scene. He’s heard Kendrick’s recorded confession that he was present for the murder, and also listened to him explain that he was coerced into falsely confessing. Redemption, forgiveness, those abstract ideas, are likely to remain elusive.
The book that Vengeance most reminds me of in structure and philosophy is John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers (1984), a masterful, melancholy memoir (with fiction-adjacent interpolations) about the author’s brother’s experience in prison and the crime that put him there.* Lazar shares with Wideman a skepticism of linearity when writing about crime and punishment, and a distrust of simple messages. In the fiction and nonfiction that Wideman has published in the decades since Brothers and Keepers, his narrators’ interactions with an incarcerated brother have been a recurring motif. Returning to the subject again and again over a long period, he demonstrates in the clearest way possible the truth that a prison sentence lasts much longer than the duration of a single book.
A similar sense of continuity haunts Lazar’s latest novel, The Apartment on Calle Uruguay, whose narrator remains in touch with his deceased partner’s incarcerated brother, Jesse, a Black man who, like Kendrick, is serving a lengthy prison sentence in Louisiana. Though Jesse is just one small link in the novel’s network of characters and incidents, his presence is a signal of Lazar’s continued commitment to the thorny problems raised by Vengeance. The narrator of The Apartment on Calle Uruguay, however, is distinctly different from the autobiographical figure in the earlier novel. Here the protagonist is Christopher Bell, the son of a Jewish, Arabic-speaking Tunisian refugee father and a mother whose parents fled Poland for Israel.
A reclusive painter living on the East End of Long Island, Christopher is vaguely suspect to his neighbors thanks to his ethnic ambiguity, and he manages an uneasy peace with Diana, the woman next door, whose daughter is involved with an unpredictable townie addict. While mourning the death of his girlfriend, a Black woman who was a prominent artist, Christopher begins a new relationship with Ana, a Venezuelan journalist who has fled the deteriorating political and economic situation of her home country. Ana carries her own array of psychological and political baggage as an exile whose family, including a mother suffering from dementia, now lives in Mexico. (It’s a lot to keep track of, but clear enough in execution.)
As in Vengeance, the central action of the novel involves the narrator slowly coming to understand another person, in this case Ana. This takes the form of a stop-start romantic relationship, one that is stymied by logistics and geography—Ana needs to help her mother in Mexico and report pieces for a Spanish-language podcast—as much as it is by their feelings for each other. Lazar’s plotting is loose, moving the reader through travels to Mexico and New York City, in and out of digressions about art and race and the state of the world. At times his narrator, in his drifting philosophizing, reminded me of Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, another man mourning a loss who is pulled, somewhat against his will, back into life.
Even when violence erupts—Darren, the volatile young opioid addict, nearly stabs Christopher to death in a drug-fueled attack—it’s shocking in the moment, but soon integrated into the flow of the narrative. Lazar is determined to place the emphasis on the less sensational process of recovery and rehabilitation rather than on the crime itself. Christopher makes a deal with Darren that he won’t press charges against him if he goes to rehab, stays employed, and writes him an e-mail every day for two years. His thinking about this, as is often the case in the Lazarian universe, is cryptic and contradictory. “I didn’t believe that my arrangement with Darren was some small step toward making a better world,” he says. “I knew that if I was serious about making a better world I would have to admit there was a war going on and step into the violence.” Notably, however, that is not what he does.
In its concern with the intersections of race, class, ethnicity, art, addiction, and politics, The Apartment on Calle Uruguay is a characteristic novel of the Trump era. Set during the first years of the administration, the novel invokes some of its most infamous moments (dwelling particularly on the violence perpetrated by white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville), as well as the particular ambient dread and anger of the time. It’s interesting to observe how Lazar captures this recent history, which in some ways feels like a moment we’re eternally trapped in, and in others, given the parade of cataclysms since, like the distant past. When Christopher and Ana attend a Fourth of July party in their neighbors’ yard, he can’t help but view the gathering
through the lens of someone’s truck on the street that had a sticker in the rear window depicting the president of the United States as a mischievous eight-year-old boy gleefully pissing on the word Democrats.
And yet there is also a high-minded, if somewhat heavy-handed, hopefulness that feels peculiar to its time in his reflection that Ana and another Latin American visitor
could be present at this party without attracting anything but humor and goodwill. Just by being in the yard, physically present instead of an abstraction, they almost became part of the group, among these descendants of Italian, Irish, Jewish, Polish families, who all believed they were white.
“Almost” belonging, people “believing” that they’re white—Christopher’s narration is suffused with these kinds of qualifiers, as though to commit fully to a position would be to betray some fundamental belief about the world’s unknowableness. Lazar is at pains to point out the ways his characters are not reducible to their ethnic or racial profiles, but like the utterances of many a well-meaning liberal in the Trump era, these details can have a clumsy, backhanded effect. Highlighting how well a person is “accepted” by others tends to undercut the point being made.
By trying to capture so many crosscurrents of contemporary life, Lazar risks loading the novel with a surfeit of meaning, everyone and everything in it doing (at least) double duty as a symbol for or comment on something. The career-defining art exhibition by Christopher’s deceased partner, Malika, is called “Millions of Dead Cops,” and he darkly implies that her death in a car crash was not entirely accidental. “In my rational mind,” he writes, “I didn’t believe Malika had actually been murdered, but I also didn’t see it as an accident. It was not unlike the young woman killed by the car in Charlottesville. I didn’t see anything random in either of those deaths.”
Christopher attributes his paranoia about the nature of Malika’s death to his own experience in America after the September 11 attacks, as a person of color who “looked a little like Osama bin Laden,” but the comparison, both there and to the victim in Charlottesville, Heather Heyer, feels forced. There was indeed nothing random about Heyer’s death—she was protesting against white supremacy when she was killed by a white supremacist. There’s a way to read Christopher’s half-baked theorizing as protective justification—Malika was driving alone because she and Christopher had just had an argument that “had gone deep” and remained unresolved, “and so it existed for me now like a room that got larger and dimmer the more time I spent in it.” But if this is the case, Lazar doesn’t develop this personal side of it, and we’re left with a lingering unease.
Lazar’s ability to render the odd, memorable details of his characters’ lives, however, saves the book from feeling like it was designed solely to illustrate “the way we live now,” even if that’s exactly what it is. The scenes are dealt out slowly, giving the reader the sense of being immersed in the complexity of real life. He captures the scene at a local bar during the NBA finals, where a young man is
holding his beer glass like the end of a cane, leaning back and howling in his long black shorts. The way he screamed Iguodala made it clear he didn’t follow basketball, that he’d just heard of Andre Iguodala tonight by seeing him make some plays and liked the way it felt to shout out the syllables of his name.
There’s a diaristic intimacy to this moment, familiar to anyone who’s spent time watching sports in a bar, judgment mingled with generosity.
There’s also a great, odd scene in which Ana and Christopher, newly arrived in the Mexican city of Guanajuato, watch a 1970s Mexican B movie starring El Santo, a hero wearing a lucha libre mask, on a laptop. The movie
centered on the abduction of teenagers—a fistfight outside a school, a struggle in a car, Manson-like weirdness in a bland Mexican suburb—the acting not only bad but deliberately bad, as if they feared the movie might actually be frightening if they didn’t sabotage it.
He waxes lyrical about the nostalgia that the 1970s produces in adults of their generation, tied to “a certain menace that had to do with the way teenagers in the ’70s dressed—like runaways, or the kind of rock stars that used downers, or the kind of rock fans that smoked angel dust.”
The Apartment on Calle Uruguay suggests a change of heart for Lazar, a writer temperamentally averse to resolution. The unwieldy title refers to the apartment that Christopher and Ana eventually move into together in the center of Mexico City, a place whose charms receive the kind of rapturous copy (“the ceilings were at least fifteen feet high with skylights beyond the old rough-hewn wooden beams, which made the rooms look bigger”) that real estate agents dream in. It’s something of a Charterhouse of Parma situation—one spends most of the novel wondering why a book set on Long Island and in Mexico, with Israeli and Venezuelan characters, has “Uruguay” in the title, and the answer isn’t particularly satisfying: it’s the name of the street where they live.
But the choice to live there represents something larger, a decision to move past the impasse of the logistics and politics of the US and embrace something resembling happiness. Rather than “step[ping] into the violence” of the Trump era, Christopher begins painting again, and seems to find peace in the apartment that has a “somehow watery ambience, as if time didn’t exist.” Even as the parade of contemporary horrors continues—Ana is in El Paso when the racist 2019 Walmart shooting takes place—we are led to believe that Christopher and Ana have achieved a separate peace.
Lazar’s unshowy style and commitment to heavy, unsolvable problems has, perhaps, rendered his work less visible than it might be otherwise. There’s a nobility to his commitment to his subjects; the work may suffer from a degree of self-seriousness, but he comes by it honestly. The new book, with its hopeful ending, indicates the possibility for a lightening of mood in the future, though the state of the world seems all too likely to stymie that. In a recent interview, he was asked whether his understanding of violence had changed over the course of his career. His answer was as ambivalent and unfinished as ever:
My father was murdered for very rational reasons about money. But there’s still the mystery of the ruthlessness of somebody doing it and causing it to be done…. I think for me, violence is the baseline and we’re just lucky that it’s not a constant.
One can’t help adding: for now.
For more on Wideman, see Tobi Haslett, “A Dream of a Great Burning,” The New York Review, December 22, 2022. ↩