The American Dream Revisited: A Review of DK Nnuro’s What Napoleon Could Not Do
The fiction that is the “American Dream” has largely been stripped of its glamor and its credibility, at least within the United States itself. As the lived experiences of marginalized groups have reached the mainstream consciousness, cognizant citizens have been disabused of the blinkered optimism of the middle of the twentieth century. Yet, that hopefulness remains intact for those outside the country still waiting for their chance to arrive. In his debut novel, What Napoleon Could Not Do, DK Nnuro explores this tension between inside and out, bringing his readers into intimate contact with a transmigrant family split between Ghana and the United States and riven by the hopes, disappointments, and losses experienced by those seeking a Western fantasy.
Himself Ghanaian-born, Nnuro masterfully crafts his characters with realistic emotion and artful nuance in his portrayal of how the gravitational pull of America overdetermines transmigrant relationships—that is, the relationships of those who have immigrated to America while maintaining relationships with their families at home. Throughout its chapters, the novel shifts between alternating timelines and perspectives, tracing its characters’ shared and divergent paths as they aspire to assimilate into American life. The glaringly untalented Jacob is tortured by his inability to attain the visa necessary for entrance into the US and by his failure to financially succeed on his own. The frustration of his failed attempts to leave Ghana is compounded by the fact that his wife, Patricia, whom he has never met in person, has been living in the United States awaiting his arrival. Their marriage cannot withstand the transatlantic tension. Jacob’s exceptionally gifted sister, Belinda, has succeeded in crossing the Atlantic through her own merit, though her migration did not yield the opportunities for which she hoped. Rather, despite her achievements, including her graduation from The George Washington University Law School, she lives in constant anxiety, unable to attain the green card that would make her migration permanent. Belinda’s relative success and Jacob’s inability to succeed have put a strain on their relationship, as the latter broods over the inevitable comparison and the former resents him for it. They have fallen out of speaking terms, despite the passing of their mother and partially due to Belinda’s refusal to attend the funeral. To leave the US without a green card would jeopardize her chances of returning—a brutally honest depiction of the immigration system’s arbitrary power over them.
The novel begins in Ghana where Jacob and Patricia’s families meet for a spiteful divorce proceeding, the bond of their long-distance marriage having disintegrated in the wake of Jacob’s repeated failures to migrate. There we are introduced to Jacob’s old-fashioned father, Mr. Nti, his deaf-mute brother, Robert, and Jacob’s nephew, Alfred. This last character is perhaps the most tragic, as his youth renders him too innocent to realize the effect that American materialism has had on his relationships with his family members. Indeed, when Jacob’s marriage with Patricia is on its last legs, and her overseas remittances to Alfred have dwindled from giant bags to two ten-packs of candies, his response is to ask, “Uncle Jacob, are you mad at me?” Through episodes like this one, Nnuro reveals to the reader the all-encompassing influence that America exercises over the characters’ ability to sympathize with and relate to one another. Yet, the novel’s middle and most substantial section follows the life of Wilder Thomas, Belinda’s American-born husband. Like his wife and brother-in-law, he is tortured by his own unique crucible of assimilation. Since childhood, Wilder has been haunted by visions of exploding fruits that bear an eerie resemblance to human heads. His search for clarity takes him from Texas, to Princeton University, and climactically to the Vietnam War. His time there, the truth of which he withholds from his family, contains the potential for solving his in-laws’ dilemma of belonging.
Through fully realized characters, biting and tragic irony, and a well-organized plot, What Napoleon Could Not Do offers readers a story free of clichés and formulas. Indeed, Nnuro does more than add another entry into the growing canon of marginalized voices. The novel never devolves into a melodrama or becomes over sentimental. It's brilliantly complex and the painstakingly molded story captures the emotions of both the transmigrant experience and the experience of Black Americans. Surprising in its power and ability to captivate even the most distanced reader, this book forces us to reflect on the extent of American hegemony as it circulates in material and feeling—as well as how it might be resisted. Nnuro’s economic prose and knack for characterization will arrest all readers, in turn, with careful subtlety and bold honesty.
DK NNURO is a Ghanaian-born writer and is a graduate of Johns Hopkins and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has taught novel writing at the University of Iowa and is currently curator of special projects at the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
WILLIAM HAYDON is a second-year master's student at Florida State University. He received his bachelor’s degree in English and History from Colgate University.