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Sunday, February 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

'Lost in America': An unfathomable new world

Seattle Times staff

"Lost in America: A Journey with my Father"

by Sherwin B. Nuland
Knopf, $24

Readers of Sherwin B. Nuland's 1994 book, "How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter," marveled at his ability to be unflinchingly clinical, yet so clearly respectful of the ebb and flow of human life. His latest book reveals much of what shaped this cool observer and evocative writer, now in his 70s, a Yale professor of surgery and biomedical ethics.

This remarkable work could be shelved in any number of places in your favorite bookstore: It is history, memoir and mystery.

Nuland writes in the new book's introduction that it is an attempt to make peace with his father — and himself. It is the story of an intelligent, sensitive boy growing up in the South Bronx of the 1940s and '50s, and it confronts later demons — particularly Nuland's devastating midlife depression for which he received electroshock therapy and was spared a lobotomy thanks to a stubborn young doctor who opposed it.

As the story unfolds, it also cuts through the fog that surrounds a fascinating period of American history.

The myth of the humble, eager-to-assimilate Jewish immigrant who traveled from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to embrace what Yiddish speakers called the goldeneh medina, where all men found a golden country of equal opportunity, is a hard one to dislodge. No one loves a romantic tale (or film) of hardworking-newcomer-makes-good like an American audience.

Nuland tells a far different story, one that is crucial to the clearer view of that immigrant experience in America emerging in recent years from some talented Americanists. His work has the added strengths of being deeply personal, searingly honest and well written.

All things gold eluded Nuland's father, Meyer Nudelman. (The father kept his surname; the sons changed theirs to Nuland as young adults.)

Instead Nudelman found, as did many of his compatriots, endless days in sweatshops and a new language so bewildering that he never came close to mastering it. The scavenging illnesses of those who lived in urban poverty took his wife and much of their family before their time. Anti-Semitism and xenophobia chewed into his small store of dignity.

Perhaps most painful was that poignant struggle so familiar to immigrant parents: The witnessing of one's children assimilating into this unfathomable new world — a source of both pride and loss as the younger generation is accepted as "real" Americans, and slips away from parental authority and the old ways.

Nuland captures the unique place of the immigrant child looking out at the "other" who populate the new world that both lures and repels his parents:

"I was among them but not of them. That certainty was never so clear as when I caught a glimpse of the rest of America as it could be seen all around me in the wide thoroughfares of the Bronx. ... "

Nuland's valuable revisionist view of immigrant life is overlaid with another story, and this is where the book's elements of intriguing mystery come in.

His father's many extreme emotional and physical maladies (which baffled Nuland until he sorted out their cause while a young medical student) left a haunting figure who veered from defeated weariness to terrifying, towering rage in seconds. In the son's hands, the story of this troubled man is a tragic portrait that is both terrible and beautiful in its clarity.

Nuland, once again, has guided us to things usually found at opposite compass points. He shows how the immigrant father's failures inspired the son, who in turn grew up to be a saver of lives — and a writer who chronicles things dark and frightening with a contagious calm.

Kimberly B. Marlowe: kmarlowe@seattletimes.com

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