The narrator in Peter Behrens’s 2011 novel “The O’Briens” speaks of “a restless instinct in the family, an appetite for geography and change.” The German couple at the center of his new novel, “Carry Me,” share a similar, near-mystical pull toward the American landscape they read about in their youth. “In my most daring fantasies,” Billy writes decades later of the woman he loved, “she and I were riding across boundless open country together, Texas or New Mexico, under wide blue sky.” This yearning sounds through the novel’s pages like a refrain, and it will deliver Billy Lange and Karin Weinbrenner, though not wholly intact, from the terror of Kristallnacht to the untamed promise of the American West.
Of Irish-German extract, Billy’s an outsider wherever he finds himself. He knows suspicion and discrimination as a boy in Ireland and England, where his German father was interned during World War I. Now in Frankfurt in 1938, Billy works for the export sales department at the chemical firm IG Farben. He is an observant and deferential narrator for the most part, and in love with Karin, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish industrialist for whom his father has worked for decades. Karin’s distant and oblique presence haunts him; she is perhaps lesbian and, Behrens hints, quite possibly in love with a popular female scriptwriter in Berlin.
When Billy gets Karin pregnant, the prospect of bringing “one more German” and “some sort of Jew” into the world weighs on them. “We were jumpy from doubts, fears, dreams of America, the prospect of ourselves as parents.” Structured around the autumn of 1938 as they organize passage to America, the narrative wanders back in time to excavate lengthy tracts of family history that hobble the novel’s pacing a bit. (Archival documents loaded between sections, said to be housed in “Special Collections, McGill Library, McGill University,” seem especially adrift, uncommented on as they are by a narrator who is in a position these many years later to offer analysis and context.) But the weeks leading into Kristallnacht tighten the focus, and it’s here that Billy becomes a fully engaged protagonist. Karin’s father, trapped in a coma after being set upon by a gang of thugs, is the last obstacle between the lovers and their dream of the American West. Only a terrible act of mercy will guarantee their freedom.
Behrens captures his narrator’s naïveté and the casual anti-Semitism of the times with great skill and intelligence. Billy remembers that in the years before the full catastrophe of the age pronounced itself, “we were mostly concerned with ourselves, each of us with sex, love, loneliness probably foremost in our minds.” Contrasts expose striking truths. When he witnesses a Hitler rally in Heidelberg on the same day he loses his virginity to a prostitute, his mind is not focused on momentous historical pronouncements. He’s a kid who’s just scored, after all. “After the first 10 minutes or so I gave up trying to listen. I tuned Herr Hitler out, watched bats fluttering around the rafters, scanned the crowd for my companions and daydreamed exciting sex with Lilly.” As he stares into the eyes of history he sees, instead of portent and impending chaos, little more than his own yearnings, which seems to me as true an observation about human nature as there is.
Join Peter Behrens for Memory & Myth: Transforming Personal History October 14 – 19, 2016.