It occurs to me this morning (I’m writing on Monday, February 2nd, 2015), that I am reading about the Groundhog on Groundhog’s Day.
The Groundhog, in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, is an Eastern European mob boss–the Fan Man’s son–in the mythic city of Prava. At about page 300, it appears that he’s our hero’s savior. I’m a little nervous about whether that will hold true as the book unfolds.
The prognosticating groundhogs–Phil and Dave are the ones I follow–are miserable little rodents. They’re telling me winter’s long tentacles have no intention of loosening anytime soon. They COULD have been the season’s saviors–but no. Oh, well.
I’ve been on a Scottish reading streak. I didn’t intentionally go looking for a bunch of Scots writers or themes…But I somehow went from Outlander to Alistair MacLeod (well–he was Scots-Canadian, to be absolutely transparent) to Alexander McCall Smith. All very different, but all with a kind of decent, bluff, broad sort of thread tying the books together. Lively narratives; some wry, tongue-in-cheek, gentle humor. Each has very upright characters. Each author tugs at my heart in different ways; there’s poignancy there. Of course, each book is a unique read, too, but the similarities resound.
Nothing wrong with that, of course, but after a while, a lot of the same can be too much. I want something different, I thought. I want something a little exotic, a little unusual in tone. So I grabbed a book I’ve been circling around for a while, another great dollar find from a sale rack: Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
I got exotic. I got different.
It’s not my usual sort of a book.
I’m loving it.
Sometimes I have to drive from my office to our second campus, which is 35 minutes or so away, and I always listen to National Public Radio when I do. I became an NPR junkie when I had an hour’s commute; now that I can land in my office within eight minutes of leaving my driveway, I no longer hear much of The Diane Rehm Show.
So I was delighted, on a crisp, sunny Fall day several years ago, to make the trek to the Cambridge campus. I got in the car, started the ignition, and turned the radio on just at the beginning of an interview with Gary Shteyngart. He was talking about Super Sad True Love Story; he read an excerpt; he read it really well; and it was funny. He himself seemed to be wry and self-deprecating and very, very interesting. I could tell the host–whose name I can’t remember, but you know the one: the woman who does such great interviews, getting hotshot celebrities to be all human–was thoroughly charmed.
I felt little pings of connection–Shteyngart went to an Ohio college (Oberlin); Ohio’s my adopted state. And of course he’s a lover of words–that resonates very deeply. But he was born in 1972 (I was a junior in high school that year; old enough to be his babysitter, for heaven’s sake) in what was then called Leningrad and is now called St. Petersburg. According to Wikipedia, Shteyngart calls his city of birth St. Leningrad or St. Leninburg. I’m not sure what that means, and I’m not exactly sure why, but I think that’s kind of clever.
Shteyngart and his family–engineer father, pianist mother,–emigrated to the States. They lived in New York City. Gary–whose given name is Igor Semyonovich Shteyngart, or thereabouts–studied politics at Oberlin, and spent his junior year in Prague. He did an MFA at Hunter College, and, says Wikipedia, which I know you should never use for scholarly research, he teaches writing at Columbia.
The little old lady at the beauty parlor this morning told me a story. (I bet you know someone just like her, too; every time I see her she says, “I’m EIGHTY-EIGHT years old!” and waits for the expected response. “Get OUT,” I always say. “You can’t be 88!” And then, because I’ve responded correctly, she gives me a story.) Today’s was about her grandmother, who emigrated from Germany when she was 16.
“Can you imagine,” she asked me, “getting on a ship at 16 years of age to go a country where they speak a different language and live in an entirely different kind of culture?”
I can’t; I really can’t. I think of our ancestors–all of us probably have ’em–who decided to leave the old country and go elsewhere and took that giant, heroic leap of faith, and I’m awed and humbled.
Shteyngart and his family took that leap. Amazing.
The family in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook leaps like that too, and Vladimir, the hero of the tale, goes from being a sickly, asthmatic, butt-of-the-bullies, mama’s boy in Russia to–well, pretty much the same in Scarsdale.
Here’s how Shteyngart describes Vladimir:
“Vladimir Girshkin was a man who once instinctively moved in the wrong direction and invariably got knocked down every time he saw a person running his way.
Vladimir Girshkin once said ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ when there was absolutely no need, and often employed a bow so deep it would have been excessive at Emperor Hirohito’s court.”
Vladimir is the skinny, wheezing guy who just has never fit in; his friends are weird misfits, and his parents are perennially disappointed. We meet him when he’s 25, stuck in a dismal job and a dismal relationship, and unwittingly about to embark on a no-doubt completely wrong-headed adventure of monumental proportions.
This adventurous path takes him to fictional Prava, a story line which, the Internet tells me, is derived from the college year Shteyngart spent in Prague. Prava, says Vlad, is the Paris of Eastern Europe.
Here’s what I really like about this book: it’s flippant and funny and outrageously, self-consciously, witty, but the characters aren’t just stereotypes or Flat Stanleys. The narrative is not merely a structure to show off Shteyngart’s enormously entertaining biting humor. Underneath the funny, underneath the “Oh, please, that could NEVER happen!”, underneath the “How could he be so trusting/stupid/desperate???” throbs some very real feeling.
The family members depicted here might prefer to be throttled before they’d admit it, but they love each other very much, quirks and all. And Vlad is a guy who makes a whole heap of stupid–and stupidly funny–monumental gaffes, but he’s also capable of really deep feeling. He can be a total skunk too, but he’s not without murmurs of repentance, even when he’s really enjoying himself.
So I’m a little over two-thirds of the way in; Vlad is working with the Groundhog–who is, of course, the Fan Man’s son, and a kind of crime boss in the fictional city of Prava in the fictional country of…Stolova??? Vlad’s up to his eyeballs in intrigue, surrounded by dangerous thugs, embroiled in serious falsehoods, and embarked on cheating his fellow ex-pats out of their excess cash. And I have to just love the guy. Why IS that????
The word for Vladimir Girshkin is ‘picaresque.’ I think how proud my undergrad lit instructors would be that I remember that. But then, they’d be so disappointed that I had to go running to the Yahoo dictionary to find this definition:
Of or relating to a genre of usually satiric prose fiction originating in Spain and depicting in realistic, often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social degree living by his or her wits in a corrupt society.
Exactly. Vladimir is exactly that. Like Don Quixote. Blurbs on the back of the book compare Shteyngart to Martin Amis, the young Evelyn Waugh, to Saul Bellow and Henry Roth. A fine company of biting wit-sters, for sure.
And Vladimir is a perfectly picaresque protagonist.
So. Not a brawny Scot, Vladimir, not even remotely like that. But go figure: The Russian Debutante’s Handbook–kind of like an acerbic handful of rock salt eating away at winter’s persistent ice–is just the book I needed. Take that, you scoundrelly groundhogs.