I’m just starting to emerge from the post-natal sleep deprivation fog, and the first book I chose to read in between naps was Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. (My secret shame: I read this on the good DJ’s recommendation, enjoyed it, and decided to check out Shteyngart’s 2002 debut novel.)
Shteyngart has been compared to Nabokov. Fair enough, I thought. Russian immigrant. Strong command of the English language. Dry sense of humor. That much was evident after just the first couple of pages. I figured that comparison was just a lazy critic’s crutch, though; no one writes arid farce like Nabokov. But Shteyngart delivers. This dude is the real deal.
His protagonist, Vladimir Girshkin, is a Russian Jewish immigrant struggling to assimilate–sometimes succeeding, but mostly failing hilariously. He does manage to adopt the American twenty-something’s “glam-nerd” look, which is incomplete without “janitor pants.”
Girshkin is forced after a series of misadventures to Prava, a thinly disguised Prague, “the Paris of the ’90s” for recent American college grads. Never having been an expat, I can’t attest as to how accurate his depiction of this scene is. But I have my suspicions. I know some of these people. Girshkin goes to work for the Russian mob. Picaresque hijinks ensue.
I could recount the plot here, but I couldn’t do it justice, so I won’t. But it’s damned funny.
I come away from this book with a keen appreciation for Shteyngart’s use of the language. His send-ups of the special jargon of American popular culture that has somehow internationalized itself are especially hilarious. When a minor celebrity dj rolls into Prava he screams, “MC Paavo in de haus! In de pan-European ‘hood! Got de Helsinki beat, y’all can’t fuck wif!” His prickings of academe’s unique pretentions are also spot-on: A girlfriend’s father is “evolving” the field of Humor Studies as a history professor at City College; a “trio of emaciated grad students” stands around a pool table at a bar “with their cue sticks at the ready, as if waiting for funding to appear.” Apropos of nothing, but it got a guffaw out of me.
I’m going to be very curious to see what Shteyngart can pull off with his next novel. Like I said: The real deal.