Novelist brings together Meyer Lansky, King David’s tale and a slain Israeli poet

By Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times

Meyer Lansky is one of the gravitational centers of Zachary Lazar’s new novel, “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” (Little, Brown and Co., $25).

Not so much the dapper, “Boardwalk Empire”-era gangster as Lansky in 1972 in Israel, seeking to retire there under the country’s Law of Return. It’s hardly the most celebrated era in Lansky’s life, but Lazar was going for something other than the obvious.

“The initial idea of this book was to put Meyer Lansky in the same room as King David from the Bible,” Lazar said via Skype from his home office in New Orleans. “That was such a crazy idea it was nearly a ludicrous one.”

And yet the King David story does appear, woven seamlessly into a multi-threaded narrative that includes Lansky and his 1970s mistress, flashbacks to his younger days, plus a contemporary American journalist who has a love affair when she investigates the slaying of a (fictional) Israeli poet whose politically tinged work gives the novel its title.

Lazar, who recently got tenure teaching creative writing at Tulane, proved that he could make disconnected story lines work with “Sway,” his 2008 novel that moved among the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger and Charles Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil. In another writer’s hands, this might’ve been lurid; in Lazar’s, it was a brilliant, controlled look at creativity and chaos.

In his mid-40s, Lazar seems younger, wearing a casual plaid shirt when we talk. His office in the home he shares with his wife, an OB-GYN, Sarah, is modest and organized. Its most striking feature is a bold painting from an inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola that he’s planning to include in his next novel.

Behind Lazar’s easygoing demeanor lies a hungry intellect, a rare craft and a drive to write books that don’t on the surface resemble one another. “I used to worry that this was not a good thing,” he says, because the marketplace rewards series, not diversity.

“I Pity the Poor Immigrant” is anchored in the texture of daily life — a potato chip bag littering the Valley of Elah, the mistress’ itchy nylons, the “narcotic gray light of the terminal at JFK” — but it also examines the relationships between fathers and sons, violence’s legacy and Israel.

“(It’s) to do with the idealistic promise of Israel as a new nation versus what’s going on there now with the occupation,” Lazar says. “The early, so-called fathers of that nation being replaced by a generation of people who are less — what’s the word? — who just don’t live up to those ideas. It’s very likely that those ideals couldn’t be lived up to. But (Benjamin) Netanyahu is not David Ben-Gurion.”

Lazar, who is Jewish, knew only the vague outlines of Israel’s history when he was starting to write the novel. He took two research trips to the country to get a feel for the place.

Using narrative to contain a bigger problem and give it a kind of meaning is something Lazar has done before. His 2009 memoir, “Evening’s Empire,” was about his father’s life and 1975 murder. Ed Lazar, a Phoenix accountant, was killed by two gangland assassins before he could give a second day of testimony in a land fraud case against a former partner. “I have always had two ideas,” Lazar wrote in that book. “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.”

But Lazar, who got an MFA in creative writing from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, was bound to begin again. Violence, he admits, is the link between his books, although it’s not the flashy, Hollywood-ready kind. “What I think you can do in literature is get into the interiority of people: the scenes that lead up to the violence, and the scenes that take place after the violence happens. Which is really probably where a lot of the more interesting psychological transactions are happening,” he says.