Every American story is, whether certain megaphoned public figures like to be reminded or not, at some point an immigrant story. And Jende Jonga, the Cameroon-born hero of Imbolo Mbue’s furiously anticipated debut, fits neatly into the slipstream of the millions who have come before him—far-flung hopefuls fleeing chaos and hardship for a place where the pursuit of happiness isn’t just words enshrined on a monument but an unalienable right.

Though alien, of course, is exactly how many of them feel when they arrive: unmoored, unseen, unassimilated. Jende lands in New York City in 2004 with more than some but less than most; he has a temporary visa and a few tenuous connections. Still, within three years he’s managed to earn enough at odd jobs to bring over his girlfriend, Neni, and their son, Liomi, and lucked into a coveted post as a driver for a wealthy executive, a brusque but not unfriendly man named Clark Edwards. The splendor of the Edwardses’ world—the penthouse with park views, the sprawling second home in the Hamptons, the clothes and toys and countless other luxuries they treat as thoughtlessly as dollar bills—stands in stark contrast to the Jongas’ careful budgeting and cramped Harlem apartment. But ordinary abundance seduces them too, to different degrees: Liomi learns to love sugar cereals and lose his accent, while Neni, newly pregnant, receives the castoffs that Mrs. Edwards casually passes along like holy totems—material down payments on a brighter, more prosperous future. For Jende, his family’s stability is its own reward; the most elusive luxury is a green card.

Certain historical realities of 2008—that a black man with African heritage is running for President of the United States and, less auspiciously, that the financial company Clark works for is Lehman Brothers—do come into play. Behold the Dreamers’ heart, though, belongs to the struggles and small triumphs of the Jongas, which Mbue traces in clean, quick-moving paragraphs. (The Edwardses, for the most part, remain sketches.) If the book ultimately falls short of the emotional impact its sweeping premise and seven-figure advance portend, it’s still a fresh, engaging entry in the eternally evolving narrative of what it means to be an American—and how human beings, not laws or dogma, define liberty.