Shteyngart, Gary. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Riverside, New York, 2002. F; 5/20.
This author was one of a motley group selected by New Yorker (April 6 2020) editors to write whimsical reflections on COVID topics. I liked his arch acerbic style. This book confirms that Shteyngart is a satirist, there are passages in it that are out-loud hilarious. Done properly, satire can flirt with ambiguity at the same time as it makes us laugh: is this serious or a joke or both? Shteyngart can keep us guessing by slipping pathos into the mix. At best it rises to well-written and occasionally thoughtful slapstick. Chaucer, Cervantes, Swift, or even Joseph Heller this isn’t, but it is engaging fun at its own expense.
Vladimir Girshkin like the author is a Russian Jew (plot alerts, but I’m not recommending you read this…). We start with him a civil servant in New York miserably underperforming his Jewish mother’s expectations. A psychotic potential client turns out to be rich and to have a son back in fictional Stolovaya (a minor Soviet buffer state) who runs a Ponzi scheme and has an army of thugs. When Vladimir narrowly escapes being raped by another gangster in Florida and has to flee to Prava (capital of Stolovaya and “the new Paris”) leaving his ideal girlfriend and her academic parents behind, a new life of wealth and privilege begins as for him as a darling of local gangsters and American artistes. Adventures unfold, his new girlfriend there is a closet political activist, and he escapes back to the first world sadder but wiser.
Outlandish alcohol consumption, disregard for every kind of Western political correctness and current style, and lots of nicely-sent-up pretension and ignorance abound.
Mr. Shteyngart has the gift of the gab and works hard at making his character credible. He delivers up ridicule strung together like bad costume jewelry around a serious woman’s neck:
PanAm jumbo jets sat by departure gates like patient whales, Vladimir Girshkin had done the unthinkable and wept. It was the kind of outburst his father had prohibited at the conclusion of toilet training, on the grounds that there were few things left in the world that separated the sexes, but tears and sniffling certainly headlined the list.
The dad is a doctor who made lots of money although he says he “never cared about medicine, about saving or prolonging the lives of my patients, not that I’m such a bad person. I care about other things: fishing, gardening, the opera.” The Ponzi operator Groundhog in Prava tells it like it is: “lonely (me has) nobody in Dnepropetrovsk. (My) cousin kill himself last year and Dyadya Lyosha, distant relative, he die from drink. So is finish!”
I was reminded a bit of Gary Baldwin’s Yiddish for Pirates. Improbable leaps of undeserved good fortune in pursuit of something enormous and magical, with some intriguing political reality prompting things along. But the tone and style of this story didn’t quite for me carry the weight of its roller-coaster but predictable and eventually disappointing plot. Still, if you like crazy fantastic adventures and very good Jewish self-parody this might be worth your trouble.