”Mercury Pictures Presents,” by Anthony Marra; Hogarth (432 pages, $28.99)
In fiscal year 2021, the United States welcomed fewer refugees than any comparable period since at least the mid-1970s. The record low stemmed from the openly hostile policies of the outgoing Trump administration, which used its rhetoric and its authority to disparage those who sought sanctuary and to limit the number who were allowed to stay.
Yet the Trump era sadly was not the first time that this “nation of immigrants” behaved inhospitably toward “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Another shameful period came during World War II, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies treated so-called “resident aliens” as extensions of the enemies overseas, subjecting legal immigrants and unnaturalized foreigners to proscriptions such as curfews and imprisonment in internment camps.
Anthony Marra’s sweeping new novel, “Mercury Pictures Presents,” follows an eclectic group of European immigrants in California during the war who are forced to contend with their government’s changing views of their loyalty and their utility. All these characters are connected to Mercury Pictures International, a second-rate Hollywood studio founded by Artie and Ned Feldman, twin brothers who came to the United States from Silesia in 1901.
The studio thrived during the silent era of the 1920s, but by 1941, Ned was handling the books from the Big Apple while Artie remained in the City of Angels making increasingly sensational films, since “outrage was all he could bring forth” better than the competition.
Artie’s 28-year-old assistant, Maria Lagana, sees to the studio’s day-to-day management, including navigating the Production Code, which determines how much sex, violence and politics are “appropriate” for American audiences.
Maria’s story line is the novel’s most robust and rewarding. She and her mother leave Rome as political exiles in 1931 after Mussolini sentences her father, a prominent lawyer, to internal exile in southern Italy. Maria and her mother go to L.A., where they live with her great-aunts, a trio straight out of central casting who provide both color and comic relief. Back in Calabria, Maria’s father finds a surrogate family who will eventually connect with Maria herself.
The first half of the novel has freighted moments, but America seems to present the opportunities that so many believes she holds. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Mercury’s over-the-top approach is employed for propagandistic purposes, even as its employees are forced to curtail their freedoms.
The plot grows unwieldy as it spins off in myriad directions, with Marra seemingly so invested in his subject that he sketches extended arcs for every incidental character who enters a scene. It makes for a rich world, but one that feels unfocused.
While Marra’s lens is trained on the fate of European immigrants, he obliquely addresses the internment of Japanese-Americans through the eyes of Maria’s Chinese-American boyfriend, which offers an interesting, if cursory, perspective.
The novel thankfully keeps returning to Maria, resolving her various struggles against the employer, family and country who variously question her value. And Marra maintains a light touch throughout, because this is Hollywood after all, and entertainment is Paramount — or should I say Mercury.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer for the Star Tribune.