I Pity the Poor Immigrant

A Novel


Read by Cassandra Campbell

By Zachary Lazar

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This stunning novel by the author of Sway is another “brilliant portrayal of life as a legend” (Margot Livesey).

In 1972, the American gangster Meyer Lansky petitions the Israeli government for citizenship. His request is denied, and he is returned to the U.S. to stand trial. He leaves behind a mistress in Tel Aviv, a Holocaust survivor named Gila Konig.

In 2009, American journalist Hannah Groff travels to Israel to investigate the killing of an Israeli writer. She soon finds herself inside a web of violence that takes in the American and Israeli Mafias, the Biblical figure of King David, and the modern state of Israel. As she connects the dots between the murdered writer, Lansky, Gila, and her own father, Hannah becomes increasingly obsessed with the dark side of her heritage. Part crime story, part spiritual quest, I Pity the Poor Immigrant is also a novelistic consideration of Jewish identity.


  • Praise for I Pity the Poor Immigrant:

    "This is a true portrait of history...as understood by characters whose individual parts have been beautifully brought together by a master craftsman."--Antonya Nelson
  • "Here's a truly exciting novel. The conception is bold, the execution mesmerizing. Zachary Lazar makes the old stories dangerous and urgent again, and reveals the terror beneath our tidy versions of the now."-Sam Lipsyte, author of Home Land and The Ask

  • "I Pity the Poor Immigrant is work of intricate and precise mystery, a book that is like a bold monument in an empty desert, a thing built of dread, and silences, and dazzling elegance, by a worldly and masterful hand."-Rachel Kushner, author of 2013 National Book Award finalist The Flamethrowers

  • "I Pity the Poor Immigrant conveys on every page a radical intensity of emotion and intellect. It's epic in scope and yet, in bursts of fine flinty prose, of great economy. Plus it has gangsters in it, and murder, and old lovers, and, above all, a father and daughter whose story turns out to be a heartbreaker."-Joshua Ferris, author of The Unnamed

  • "I Pity the Poor Immigrant is the next iteration of story-making that attempts to tell the truth by means of blending fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and journalism. Like the novels of W. G. Sebald, Zachary Lazar's tale involves a collage of documents, a mix of voices and points of view, to get at the elusive (and inconclusive) nature of human experience. This is a true portrait of history-its circling, complicating elements-as understood by characters whose individual parts have been beautifully brought together by a master craftsman."-Antonya Nelson, author of Bound
  • "This novel of living myths and the way we manufacture them could not have found a more perfectly paradoxical backdrop: Jerusalem, the spiritual beginning of the West; and Vegas, capital of the other West, where our oldest places are restaged for fun and profit. Zachary Lazar transforms Meyer Lansky from famous mobster to mythic stateless antihero, a figure who might as easily walk out of an airport as out of Sophoclean tragedy."-Salvatore Scibona, author of The End (finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Young Lions Fiction Award)
  • "A...tale involving Meyer Lansky, Las Vegas, an investigative reporter and the murder of an Israeli poet... The connections Lazar makes here are complex and artful." -Kirkus Reviews
  • "Lazar juggles the elliptical and fragmented narrative effectively; he is also an excellent stylist, cleverly mimicking multiple forms. The author ambitiously makes a point about history-public and personal-and how it can lead to unexpected byways... An interesting and challenging novel." -Publishers Weekly
  • "Zachary Lazar's brilliant I Pity the Poor Immigrant considers Jewish identity in the provocative and riddling way that Walter Abish's How German Is It asked a similar question about Germans--but Lazar's is ane ven more daring project, for Jews have seldom been willing to look at themselves as perpetrators. Here Lazar deploys once again that signature mixture of panorama, poetry, and intimate observation that he invented in his novel Sway, to evoke the chatoic, hypnotic world of sixties rock and roll. In I Pity the Poor Immigrant, the maze of interlocking voices, bloody crime scenes, and rubble-strewn, blighted cityscapes from the West Bank to the Lower East Side suggests a disturbing question: How Jewish is violence? Lazar never exactly answers: rather, he mesmerizes the reader with a somber, ever moving, kaleidoscopic demonstration: the will to violence, as a strategy as well as a defense, an ambition as well as a compensation, has been with us from the beginning, from King David to Meyer Lansky, from ancient Israel to Las Vegas, New York and Tel Aviv.

    These are aspects of the poor immigrant experience that respectably fixed later generations prefer to forget: how some of the first to arrive, however impeccable their excuses, looked about them and too the violent opporunity, used the weak and the greedy, to force their way up, sometimes to the top. And yet, as it catches him in its strange, flickering, unstable narrative light, I Pity the Poor Immigrant somehow generates authentic, if bitter, pity even for a gangster like Lansky, stranded in his habit of silence when the State of Israel refuses to take him in."

    --Jaimy Gordon, author of Lord of Misrule

  • "In between doling out tidbits of Lansky's personal life and early years, Lazar crafts masterful fictional characters who seem as genuine as the real-life mobsters... Blending fact and fiction freely, he insightfully examines the importance of whether the myths we tell ourselves and each other can become their own kind of truth in the end."
  • "Lazar is a master of combining disparate stories into one complicated revealing narrative. In this novel, he has again succeeded in taking the reader through various seemingly unconnected lives and demonstrating how we are all immigrants striving for some inexplicable dream."
    Library Journal (starred review)
  • "Hannah Groff's story includes gangster Meyer Lansky-a major figure in the development of Las Vegas-and makes room for the Biblical King David. And in Lazar's deft narrative, the lives of those tough Jewish men are convincingly woven into a rich cast of imagined characters."
    Chris Waddington, NOLA.com
  • "It may be that the intersection of artifice and experience is the only place where the contemporary novel can really thrive. Zachary Lazar is one of the contemporary writers who work at that intersection... I Pity the Poor Immigrant is a kind of fantasia on Jewish themes, covering everything from the State of Israel and the Holocaust to the Bible and the immigrant experience. Its presiding spirit is Meyer Lansky, the Jewish gangster who made a failed bid to escape American criminal charges by moving to Israel... I Pity the Poor Immigrant is a paradoxical feat of a novel: A quiet pyrotechnic, full of elliptical insights, crowded with incident yet feeling lean rather than stuffed. It offers confident testimony that the novel, even in the age of memoir, has its own irreplaceable role."
    Adam Kirsch, Tablet Magazine
  • " Mr. Lazar concocts a beautifully written hybrid text of remembrance, essay, speculation and poetic prose... Hannah does learn (or intuit) the crime's solution, in a scene as indelible as everything else in this creative, unforgettable work."
    Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal
  • "I Pity the Poor Immigrant is an inventive, taut, and refreshing take on a crime novel."
    Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins, in The Rumpus
  • "I Pity the Poor Immigrant, like Lazar's award-winning earlier book, Sway, merges fictional people and events with real people and events to great literary effect... It's a brutally honest and beautifully written account of the need to love, be loved and belong... Lazar makes the reader think, ask questions and discover connections, all of which make his novel that much more rewarding to read."
    Sharon Chisvin, Winnipeg Free Press

On Sale
Apr 8, 2014
Hachette Audio

Zachary Lazar

About the Author

Zachary Lazar‘s previous novel, Sway (Little, Brown), was chosen as a Best Book of 2008 by the Los Angeles Times, and his memoir, Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder (Little, Brown), was named a Best Book of 2009 in the Chicago Tribune. Lazar is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. He lives in New Orleans, where he is on the creative writing faculty at Tulane University.

Learn more about this author