Zany Post-Soviet Hijinks

April 15, 2002 |

The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
By Gary Shteyngart
Riverhead. 452 pages. $24.95.

If you came of age in Jewish schools, summer camps, and community centers in the 1990s, as I did, you probably knew more than one kid like Vladimir Girshkin. Think back: remember that ultra-pale, surprisingly hairy 14-year-old whose wardrobe came straight off the sale racks at Kmart in various shades of vinyl? He spoke with an indeterminate accent, was unfamiliar with the touchstones of our culture (cartoons, baseball cards, sugary breakfast cereals), and he wasn’t the guy you wanted to be paired with in lab or gym. Of course, there were plenty of Russians at my day school who adapted perfectly to life in North America, fitting right in with the rest of us—braces, top forty radio, and all—but the one or two oddballs are the ones we remember.

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In Gary Shteyngart’s widely praised debut novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, we discover the fate of such an oddball when he is released into the wider world. (more…)