Thursday, September 16, 2010

Russian Debutante's Handbook

Gary Shteyngart writes about Vladimir Girshkin, an American citizen who came to New York City from Russia and is trying to impress people. The year is 1994. The theme of the book: Vladimir wants to fit in. He meets a girl who lives in Manhattan, considers herself an intellectual, and becomes interested in Vladimir possibly because she thinks he looks a little like Trotsy. He wants to be in love with her and enjoys doing things like shopping for organic toothbrushes. She makes him spend so much money on clothing, food, and wine that he starts scamming an elderly Russian gentleman with a son who is a Russian mob boss. Related to his quest for cash, he almost gets raped, which somehow results in his fleeing to Prava, an up-and-coming East European City right after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In Prava, Vladimir joins the Russian mob in order to protect himself and because cynicism seems easier than hope. He scams people, adopts shallow friendships, and remains scared. The expats he encounters in Prava seem uncomfortable with themselves and are trying to reinvent their identities. Peope want to be more creative, strong, spiritual, or dangerous. They seek validation or vengeance. Most of them are living on cash from their parents.

I loved some of the New York characters, especially an elderly man who liked to sing old Russian anthems with his fan. The Prava characters just fell flat. although I do like Vladimir's love interest, Morgan. She is maybe the only character in the whole book who seeks to be true to herself, although she wants to save people or fight for principles that she doesn't entirely understand.

The Russian boss who employs Vladimir is a caricature of an aggressive, erratic, violent, and uncultured mobster. He's called "The Groundhog." The story falls apart as Vladimir navigates in a city of stereotypes. I liked the ending, though, and won't spoil it in case you want to read this book.

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