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.
Moral Hazard by Kate Jennings. A small but vividly written, funny and powerful novel about Cath, a 40something woman who takes a job in New York high finance in order to support her husband, a graphic designer with Alzheimers. Jennings portrays Caths commute between two circles of hell with wit and an intelligent irony that walks the line between humor and tragedy. Her portrait of corporate arrogance as a malady no less delusional than her husbands ailment is brilliant.
Was This Man A Genius? Talks With Andy Kaufman by Julie Hecht. Acclaimed short story writer Hecht took a year to chase after and interview legendary comedian Andy Kaufman. He turned out to be as annoying, thrilling, creative, utterly selfish, impossible to pin down and hilariously lunatic as he seemed to be on television. In the end, Kaufman proved unknowable but Hecht got a slim but substantial book out of the deal.
The Descent of Music by Deborah Cummings. Despite being published by a small, relatively obscure press (Plum Branch Press in Harrisburg, PA), Cummings elegant collection of short stories has received national acclaim in trade publications and literary journals. Its easy to see why. Cumming, a Davidson poet who has taught in universities all over the world, writes with a delicate and understated power, delving deeply into the lives of her characters. This is a masterful collection of short fiction.
Forbidden Truth by Jean-Charles Brisard & Guillaume Dasquie. This controversial international bestseller has found an American publisher even though the bin Laden family had it banned in Switzerland. Two French journalists claim, among other things, that the Bush administration was negotiating with the Taliban for rights to place an oil pipeline through Afghanistan right up to the time they infuriated them a month before 9/11; that Americas hunt for bin Laden has been undermined by its cozy ties to the Saudi regime; and that the 9/11 attacks were the culmination of Americas training, and abandonment, of Muslim fighters in their war against the Soviet Union what the authors call the greatest foreign policy blunder in 30 years.
Melal by Robert Barclay. A beautiful, gripping and haunting debut novel about families living in a crumbling culture in the South Pacific, where the islands and atolls have been the sites of atomic testing and heavy military presence for decades. The combination of South Seas mythology and present-day realities of courageous, confused islanders make for an unsparing but rich portrait of a part of the world most of us know little about.
Cant Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters by Robert Gordon. Gordon is an enthusiastic writer who captures the flavor of the Mississippi Delta where Waters was born, as well as the grit and energy of the Chicago streets where the musical giant practically invented modern electric blues single-handed. A fine biography that focuses as much on the music as the artists life. John Grooms, Frye Gaillard, Dana Renaldi, John Schacht
Creative Loafings Charlotte Bestseller List
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
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