Thursday, February 14, 2013


The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Gary Shteyngart, Riverhead Books, 2002, 452 pp

I read Gary Shteyngart's debut novel at fever pitch because I started it late for a reading group discussion. Fever pitch was the correct approach; it matches the pace of the story.

In the grand tradition of immigrant novels, Vladimir Girshkin is a young man of Russian descent adrift in a sea of confusion. He works at an immigrant resettlement agency in New York City, making non-profit wages. His girlfriend is a dominatrix by night, his father is an MD who scams Medicare, and his mother-well I never figured out exactly what it was she did but she was trying to beat the Russian immigrant odds in the 1990s by going straight.

I suppose the novel isn't for everyone. The two reading group members who showed up at the meeting at least tried but "couldn't get into it." I loved it the way I loved Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March; the way I loved Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker; the way I loved Isaac Asimov's autobiography In Memory Yet Green. The book is part of a huge story called "How I Became an American" fraught with identity crises, family strife, and hilarity.

The post-Soviet Union Russian criminal element is well represented but done with heavy sarcasm. A good part of the story is set in Prague, that city's celebrated Baroque soul swamped in the tatters of two world wars and one Cold War. Shteyngart's Eastern European characters are raised to a level of slapstick often seen in film but rarely in novels.

It was not clear to me whether Vladimir actually found himself or love or even a career, but he found safety. Just writing this now it occurs to me that safety is the rarest commodity of all for an immigrant. Rather than riches or enough to eat or religious freedom, safety is in the end what the displaced person craves most.

(The Russian Debutante's Handbook is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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