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Immigrants A-Go-Go

The latest long Russian novel

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I don't know what it is about Russian novelists and their love of writing long books. Perhaps it's the weather, no doubt more conducive to staying indoors and penning prose. Perhaps it's the food -- no real compelling reason to stop reading or writing. Perhaps it's a lack of qualified editors. But geez -- if the whole story about folks waiting in line for hours for toilet paper was ever true, they could have solved that in no time with a truckload of Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn novels.Thirty-year-old Gary Shteyngart is being touted as heir to that, er, throne. Born in Leningrad, he moved to the United States at age seven. His acclaimed first novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, is the story of Vladimir Girshkin's summer of 1993. As the book begins, Vladimir is a Russian immigrant at New York City's Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society. He's making a miserly $8-an-hour when he meets a sexy coed named Francesca. Soon finding expenses (mostly dating) beyond his means, Vladimir happens upon a pyramid scheme that takes him back to Russia. Inexplicably, he has no problems meeting girls in Russia, either (this Vladimir must be some looker).

After fleeing a drug dealer and settling in Prague (which Shteyngart, strangely, refers to as Prava -- perhaps he's fleeing someone too?) Vladimir soon goes to work for a "Mobscow" gangster known as "The Groundhog."

The aimed-at-Americans Ponzi plan includes a "brand-new high-technology industrial park and convention centre," a Kafka-esque club called the Metamorphosis Lounge, and a literary magazine. The magazine makes Vladimir something of a scenester in Prava's American ex-pat circles, who Shteyngart mercilessly skewers: "Well, to start with, they were a fairly homogenous group -- white middle Americans with a fashionable grudge, that was the lowest common denominator...bonded by the glue of their mediocrity, they stuck together as if they had been born in the same Fairfax County pod, had all suckled the same baby-boomer she-wolf like so many Romuluses and Remuses."

From here, the book proceeds in a fairly entertaining fashion to describe the inner battle between Vladimir's clean-cut, docile American side versus his newfound gregarious, braggadocio-filled "heritage." Entertaining, but not especially riveting. Characters pop up like villains in a Guy Ritchie movie, all caricature and pomposity, only to fade into the background as Shteyngart's gargantuan plot begins to unfurl. And unfurl, and unfurl.

As a treatise on the nature of the immigrant experience, the book shines, presenting the stranger-in-a-strange-land story that Hemingway and countless others have done for decades now in, if not a new way, a new light. Shteyngart, for all his roasting of the American 25-34 demographic, reserves the hottest coals for his mother Russia, a sort of Wild, Wild West that, while not necessarily lawless, is still run by those with the biggest guns.

It's not ruining any part of the plot to mention that, at the end, Vladimir finally gets what he wants all along -- some sort of transcendence from the labels of poor/ rich/ Russian/ American/ Jew stuck on him like so many stickers on his (well-worn) luggage. In typical Vlad the Curtailer fashion, however, it's in the form of a formerly self-destructive lie that becomes a truth. As Shteyngart writes towards the end, "Lies had always been important to our Vladimir, like childhood friends with whom one never loses an understanding."

As Vladimir can attest, sometimes you take your friends where you can find them.

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Creative Loafing’s Charlotte Bestseller List

Hardbacks

1. The Remnant by Tim LaHaye & Jerry B. Jenkins
2. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
3. The Beach House by James Patterson & Peter DeJonge
4. Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right by Ann H. Coulter
5. Tie: Grave Secrets by Kathy Reichs & Milk Glass Moon by Adriana Trigiani

Paperbacks

1. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
2. Nowhere Else on Earth by Josephine Humphreys
3. Empire Falls by Richard Russo
4. Face The Fire by Nora Roberts
5. A Place Called Wiregrass by Michael Morris
Participating bookstores: Barnes & Noble-Sharon Corners; The Bookmark; Borders Books & Music; Little Professor-Park Road; Newsstand International. —Compiled by Ann Wicker

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