America's cherished immigrant narrative that triumphal tale of striving and assimilation, of quaint old-world traditions giving way to the enticements of the new gets a melancholy revision in Dinaw Mengestu's understated first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. ''I did not come to America to find a better life,'' says narrator Sepha Stephanos. ''I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back. My goal since then has always been a simple one: to persist unnoticed through the days, to do no more harm.''
Stephanos has succeeded all too well. In the 17 years since he fled the political violence in his native Ethiopia, Stephanos has acquired a shabby grocery store in the predominantly black Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Logan Circle, which he chose because it reminded him ''that wealth and power were not immutable, and America was not always so great after all.'' He sells Bubble Tape gum and potato chips to schoolchildren and prostitutes (whose wares he sometimes accepts in trade) while reading V.S. Naipaul behind the counter. He is one of those emotionally frozen characters whom fiction writers love trying to thaw.
And who better to awaken this benumbed man than a woman? White urban pioneers begin to settle in the neighborhood, angering longtime residents and upsetting Stephanos' equilibrium. Among the arrivals is Judith, a seductive white academic who buys and refurbishes ''a beautiful, tragic wreck of a building,'' and moves in with her precocious mixed-race daughter, Naomi.
With blithe self-assurance that is possibly even more enviable than her wealth, Judith strikes up a friendship with Stephanos. Less probably, so does Naomi, who is soon spending whole days in his shop reading and discussing Dostoyevsky. (Happy though this makes Stephanos, the relationship rings false, the kind of precious intergenerational rapport that turns up most often in movies.) Hesitantly, Stephanos begins to imagine a fuller life, one that could perhaps include a romance with Judith.
How both Logan Circle and Stephanos ultimately deal with the threat/promise of Judith is the substance of this graceful novel. If there's an underlying problem with the work, it's that Mengestu keeps such tight control over his material that it can't really breathe. Judith and Stephanos play their roles with subtlety and intelligence, but they always feel like just that: roles. The warmth that you sense lurks inside these people and within this impeccable book never completely emerges because Mengestu, like his characters, seems to be following a script. B+