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. Like his protagonist, Shteyngart is a Jewish twenty-something New Yorker who lived from birth to puberty in St. Petersburg, and he knows his subject intimately. Think of the book as a preview of the awkward conversation you’ll have with your local Vladimir at your 10th high school or summer camp reunion.

As the book opens on his 25th birthday, Vlad is a liberal arts grad, earning $8 an hour as a clerk at a half-assed immigrant aid society, and is tied up in a relationship with a matronly dominatrix he can’t bear the thought of having sex with. He remembers fondly his days as a maladjusted high school geek and has only one friend, a small-time thug and drug dealer. The only man more whipped by his investment-banking mother than himself is his HMO-scamming father. After a brief tour of this excuse for a life, the plot chugs into motion at breakneck speed, pushed forward by Vladimir’s lust, boredom, and increasing greed. Vlad misadventures his way through several settings—Manhattan, Miami Beach, a scantily-fictionalized Prague—bumping into dozens of characters and ineptly gesturing at a life of crime. All of this picaresque fun is described in Shteyngart’s consistently humorous prose, which always seems to be winking at its own awkwardly formal diction.

With the many scene changes, allusions, and the ever-marching multinational parade of minor characters, you might expect The Russian Debutante’s Handbook to shed light on the experiences of Russian Jews in the New World or the general socio-politco-economic rollercoaster of eastern Europe. Don’t. The book asks provocative questions about ethnicity, nationality, and so on, but Shteyngart refuses to hazard any answers, opting instead for wacky car chases and broad satire. Possibly, the intended message here is that Vladimir’s blithe selfishness is all we can expect from someone who has lived a short life and suffered the slights of both communism and capitalism almost simultaneously.

In any case, Shteyngart’s writing will buoy you along so confidently that you probably won’t notice until the last fifty pages that Vladimir is a jerk using a vaguely construed notion of his exile status to justify his pursuit of getting rich quick and getting laid; or that the arc of his adventures eerily resembles Chip Lambert’s Lithuanian jaunt in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Shteyngart’s narrative leaves a trail of loose ends and semi-caricatures in its wake, but fortunately this talented young author could describe his hero tying his shoes for a couple of pages and it would still be fun to read. With Shteyngart’s sights set on Azerbaijan and Georgia for his second novel, we have more zany post-Soviet hijinks to look forward to.

[Originally published in New Voices.]