For months, we have been watching the desperation of thousands of immigrants, departing from North Africa and attempting to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats that they believe will take them to Europe. Hundreds of them have drowned, but they keep coming in huge numbers in spite of the overwhelming obstacles, often created by greed (especially, in this situation, crooked middlemen who care little about the lives of those they are transporting). People will do almost anything to escape tyranny, poverty, lack of opportunity, and oppression to improve their lot in life. And the stories of individual immigrants from all around the world, illegally entering Europe and the United States, are legion, which begs the question, “Do we need one more?”
The answer is yes, especially if that story is Julie Iromuanya’s novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, another story of Nigerians in the United States. It’s not an uplifting account of success, even for the children of those who first arrive here. Rather, Iromuanya relates a back binding, hard luck story of failure, an account of those who never fulfill their dreams—in part because of their own self-deceptions but also because of the hostility of others. For a long time, I haven’t felt that the United States is much of a welcoming place for immigrants. One of our major political parties is absolutely rabid about foreigners entering the country. The idea of the American Dream has pretty much been negated by these people, but the word has been slow to spread outside our borders.
“Mr. Doctor” isn’t a doctor at all, but a failed Nigerian student who was sent by his father (at great economic sacrifice) to earn his BA and then eventually become an MD in the United States. Turns out he wasn’t much of a student, but how can he tell his family that he has failed? So the years pass and Job (yes, that’s his name) works at various unskilled jobs to continue living in the United States, including one as a nurse’s assistant in an old person’s home, which means that he is mostly cleaning up incontinent patients, changing sheets, and emptying bed pans. He does not, however, lose his optimism about returning to school, completing his BA and eventually becoming a doctor. That’s where the American Dream has suckered him into its web of deception, though others might argue that it’s what sustains him in the United States, but for what?
Ifi, “Mrs. Doctor,” is the woman he marries after living here for nearly twenty years, misleading her family (just as he did his parents) that he has his medical degree. She deceived him also, lying about her age by subtracting ten years from the actual figure. Job works the night shift at the nursing home and each evening when Ifi observes him, he gets into his suit and tie, always dangling a stethoscope from his pocket. Once he leaves the house, he changes into the scrubs that he wears as he does the lowest work of anyone at the elder care home. Mr. and Mrs. Doctor live in a run-down small apartment, with paint flecking from the walls and rat holes further down, but in spite of this pathetic environment, it takes Ifi some time before she figures out that her husband is not a doctor.
Job tells Ifi repeatedly that he will send her to nursing school and that the two of them will eventually return to their village in Nigeria and open a medical clinic. That lie sustains Ifi for some years as she stays at home in the run-down section of a city in Nebraska. Worse, she’s completely isolated from the world around her and frightened by the African Americans she can see through the windows of their apartment. Once he leaves for his work, Job is little interested in what his wife has to do to pass the time of her boring situation. He is, in fact, a rather obvious stereotype of some Nigerian men who leave their wives to fend for themselves. Still, Ifi puts up for this situation for several years, with only her baby boy to amuse her.
Then Iromuanya drops a bombshell. Job is an American citizen because, as we discover, he paid an American woman (who is white) a fair bit of money some years ago just as he was about to be deported. He paid her for a quickie marriage (with no consummation) in order to become a citizen. Then, after a brief “marriage,” the two of them never saw each other again until years later, when she is in a fix and needs money to pay for her mortgage. That’s when Cheryl reenters Job’s life for a second time, complicating his situation—but not entirely. Turns out that Job’s name is also on the title to the house.
I found Mr. and Mrs. Doctor compulsive reading and kept guessing what was going to happen next. Well, I’ll only tell you that Cheryl doesn’t disappear that easily a second time, and Job encounters more and more economic debt as Ifi slowly begins to catch on. There are scenes in Nigeria as well as others with Job’s only friends in the United States, another Nigerian couple (Emeka and Gladys), but some of the encounters with them do not ring true. I can understand that Job has been able to fool his wife about his doctor’s degree, but for the life of me I don’t know how he has fooled Emeka (a university professor) and Gladys for a much longer time, as well as keeping them in the dark about the slum apartment where he lives. These are minor quibbles.
The novel reminds me of an African student I taught decades ago in my first years of university teaching. He was not a good student, frequently failing classes or just barely passing them. He’d been stuck in the United States for twenty or so years, since he knew he could not return to his family without a degree. So he worked illegally, saved enough money to take another course or two, and then the whole process would begin all over again. I finally lost track of him, but I’m reasonably certain that he never earned his degree. Perhaps that is why Julie Iromuanya’s novel appealed to me. Success stories often read as if they are forced, not really true. Mr. and Mrs. Doctor has a ring of authenticity about it, sad to admit.
Julie Iromuanya: Mr. and Mrs. Doctor
Coffee House Press, 288 pp., $16.95