The Russian Debutante's Handbook is a quirky amalgam of dead-on American absurdities, albeit with somewhat stereotypical characters. While Vladimir flounders with how to improve his state, he becomes an expatriate in a trendy European city, becomes somewhat of a mobster himself, and generally has a good time. While many of the central characters remain elusively thin, Vladimir is a delight, and Shteyngart's wit is merciless: Russian women wear "wedding cakes of blond hair" and graduate students lounge in a bar "as if waiting for funding to appear." Reminiscent of Gogol and other Russian satirists, The Russian Debutante's Handbook is a genuine, sublime social commentary. --Michael Ferch
1. THE STORY OF VLADIMIR GIRSHKIN
THE STORY OF VLADIMIR GIRSHKIN-PART P. T. BARNUM, part V. I. Lenin, the man who would conquer half of Europe (albeit the wrong half)-begins the way so many other things begin. On a Monday morning. In an office. With the first cup of instant coffee gurgling to life in the common lounge.
His story begins in New York, on the corner of Broadway and Battery Place, the most disheveled, godforsaken, not-for-profit corner of New York's financial district. On the tenth floor, the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society greeted its clients with the familiar yellow water-stained walls and dying hydrangeas of a sad Third World government office. In the reception room, under the gentle but insistent prodding of trained Assimilation Facilitators, Turks and Kurds called a truce, Tutsis queued patiently behind Hutus, Serbs chatted up Croats by the demilitarized water fountain.
Meanwhile, in the cluttered back office, junior clerk Vladimir Girshkin-the immigrant's immigrant, the expatriate's expatriate, enduring victim of every practical joke the late twentieth century had to offer and an unlikely hero for our times-was going at it with the morning's first double-cured-spicy-soppressata-and-avocado sandwich. How Vladimir loved the unforgiving hardness of the soppressata and the fatty undertow of the tender avocado! The proliferation of this kind of Janus-faced sandwich, as far as he was concerned, was the best thing about Manhattan in the summer of 1993.
VLADIMIR WAS TWENTY-FIVE TODAY. He had lived in Russia for twelve years, and then there were the thirteen years spent here. That was his life-it added up. And now it was falling apart.
This would be the worst birthday of his life. Vladimir's best friend Baobab was down in Florida covering his rent, doing unspeakable things with unmentionable people. Mother, roused by the meager achievements of Vladimir's first quarter-century, was officially on the warpath. And, in possibly the worst development yet, 1993 was the Year of the Girlfriend. A downcast, heavyset American girlfriend whose bright orange hair was strewn across his Alphabet City hovel as if a cadre of Angora rabbits had visited. A girlfriend whose sickly-sweet incense and musky perfume coated Vladimir's unwashed skin, perhaps to remind him of what he could expect on this, the night of his birthday: Sex. Every week, once a week, they had to have sex, as both he and this large pale woman, this Challah, perceived that without weekly sex their relationship would fold up according to some unspecified law of relationships.
Yes, sex night with Challah. Challah with the bulging cheeks and determined radish of a nose, looking ever matronly and suburban, despite all the torn black shirts, gothic bracelets, and crucifixes that downtown Manhattan's goofiest shops managed to sell to her. Sex night-an offer Vladimir dared not refuse, given the prospect of waking up in a bed entirely empty; well, empty save for lonely Vladimir. How did that work again? You open your eyes, turn, and stare into the face of...the alarm clock. A busy and unforgiving face that, unlike a lover's, will say only "tick tock."
Suddenly, Vladimir heard the frenzied croaking of an elderly Russian out in the reception room: "Opa! Opa! Tovarisch Girshkin! Ai! Ai! Ai!"
The problem clients. They would come first thing Monday morning, having spent the weekend rehearsing their problems with their loathsome friends, practicing angry postures in front of the bathroom mirrors of their Brighton Beach studios.
It was time to act. Vladimir braced himself against the desk and stood up. All alone in the back office, with no point of reference other than the kindergarten-sized chairs and desks that comprised the furniture, he suddenly felt himself remarkably tall. A twenty-five-year-old man in an oxford shirt gone yellow under the armpits, frayed slacks with the cuffs coming comically undone, and wing tips that bore the black traces of a house fire, he dwarfed his surroundings like the lone skyscraper they built in Queens, right across the East River. But it wasn't true: Vladimir was short.
In the reception room, Vladimir found the bantam security guard from Lima pinioned against the wall. A chunky old Russian gent sporting the traditional flea market attire and six-dollar crew cut had trapped the poor fellow with his crutches and was now slowly leaning in on his prey, trying to bite him with his silver teeth. Alas, at the first hint of internecine violence, the native-born Assimilation Facilitators had ignobly fled the scene, leaving behind their Harlem, U.S.A., coffee mugs and Brooklyn Museum tote bags. Only junior clerk Vladimir Girshkin remained to assimilate the masses. "Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!" he shouted to the Russian. "We never do that to the guard."
The madman turned to face him. "Girshkin!" he sputtered. "It's you!" He pushed himself away from the guard in one remarkable motion and started limping toward Vladimir. He was a man of small stature, made smaller by a weighty green rucksack bearing down on him. One side of his azure guayabera shirt was filled bosom to navel with Soviet war medals, and their weight pulled down one collar, exposing a veined lump of neck.
"What do you want from me?" Vladimir said.
"What do I want from you?" the Russian shouted. "My God, what haughtiness!" A shaking crutch was quickly lifted into place between them. The lunatic executed a practice jab: On guard!
"I spoke to you on the phone last month," the crutch-bearer complained. "You sounded very cultured on the phone, remember?"
Cultured, yes. That would be him. Vladimir examined the man who was killing his morning. He had a broad Slavic (as opposed to Jewish) face, with a web of creases so deep they could have been carved with a pocketknife. Bushy Brezhnevian eyebrows were overtaking his forehead. A small island of hair, still blond, was moored at the geographical center of his pate. "We spoke, heh?" Vladimir said, in the devil-may-care tone of Soviet officialdom. He was a big fan of the syllable "heh."
"Oh, yes!" the old man enthused.
"And what did I say to you, heh?"
"You said to come over. Miss Harosset said to come over. The fan said to come over. So I took the number five train to Bowling Green like you said." He looked pleased with himself.
Vladimir took a tentative step back toward his office. The guard was settling back on his perch, rebuttoning his shirt, and mumbling something in his language. Still, something was amiss. Let's tally up: angry Slav; cowering security guard; low-paying, absurdist job; misspent youth; sex night with Challah. Oh, yes. "What's this fan?" Vladimir asked.
"It's the one in my bedroom," the fellow said, smirking at a question so obvious. "I have two fans."
"The fan said to come over," Vladimir said. And he has two fans. Right then, on the spot, Vladimir recognized that this wasn't a problem client. This was a fun client. A loop-de-loop client. The kind of client that turned on your morning switch and kept you brisk and agitated all day. "Listen," Vladimir said to this Fan Man, "Why don't we step into my office and you tell me everything."
"Bravo, young one!" The Fan Man gave a victory salute to his erstwhile victim the security guard. He limped into the back office, where he lowered himself onto one of the cold plastic chairs. Painfully, he removed the green beast of a rucksack.
"So, what's your name? We'll start with that."
"Rybakov," said the Fan Man. "Aleksander. Or just Aleks."
"Please...Tell me about yourself. If you're comfortable-"
"I'm psychotic," Rybakov said. His enormous eyebrows twitched in confirmation, and he smiled with false modesty, like a kid who brings in his father the astronaut on career day.
"Psychotic!" Vladimir said. He tried to look encouraging. It was not uncommon for the mad Russians to give him their diagnosis right off the bat; some treated it almost like a profession or a calling in life. "And you've been diagnosed?"
"By many people. I'm under observation as we speak," said Mr. Rybakov, peering under Vladimir's desk. "Look, I even wrote a letter to the president in the New York Times."
He produced a crumpled piece of paper reeking of alcohol, tea, and his own wet palm. "Dear Mr. President," read Vladimir. "I am a retired Russian sailor, a proud combatant against the Nazi terror in the Second World War and a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. I have lived in your wonderful country for more than five years and have received much moral and financial support from the warm and highly sexed American people (in particular, my thoughts alight on the women skating around Central Park with just a bit of cloth wrapped around their breasts). Back in Russia, senior citizens with mental disabilities are kept in dilapidated hospitals and humiliated on a daily basis by young hooligans who have scarcely heard of the Great Patriotic War and have no sympathy for their elders who fought tooth and nail to keep out the murderous Krauts. In America, I am able to lead a full, satisfactory life. I select and purchase groceries at the Sloan's supermarket on Eighty-ninth Street and Lexington. I watch television, specifically the show about the comical black midget on channel five. And I help defend America by investing part of my social security income into companies such as Martin Marietta and United Technologies. Soon I will become a citizen of this great nation and will be able to choose my leaders (not like in Russia). So I wish you, Mr. President, and your desirable American wife and developing young daughter, a very healthy, happy New Year. Respectfully, Aleksander Rybakov."
"Your English is impeccable."
"Oh, I can't take credit for that," the Fan Man said. "That was Miss Harosset's translation. She was faithful to the original, you can believe me. She wanted to put 'German' instead of 'Kraut,' but I insisted. You have to write what you feel inside, I told her."
"And the New York Times actually published this letter?" Vladimir asked.
"Those cretinous editors crossed out half my words," Mr. Rybakov said, shaking a symbolic pen at Vladimir. "It's American censorship, my friend. You don't blot out the words of a poet! Well, I've instructed Miss Harosset to commence a lawsuit on this matter as well. Her little sister is thrashing around with an important state prosecutor, so I think we're in good hands."
Miss Harosset. That must be his social worker. Vladimir looked down at the blank form on which he should have been jotting down information. A rich and particular psychosis was taking shape before him, threatening to upset the meager line allotted for "client's mental state." He grew restless, attributing it to the coffee settling within his abdomen, and started tapping out "The Internationale" on his metal desk, a nervous habit inherited from his father. Outside the nonexistent windows of the back office, the canyons of the financial district were awash with rationalism and dull commercial hope: suburban secretaries explored bargains on cosmetics and hose; Ivy Leaguers swallowed entire pieces of yellowtail in one satisfied gulp. But here it was just Vladimir the twenty-five-year-old and the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Vladimir looked up from his thoughts-his client was wheezing and sputtering like an overtaxed radiator. "Look, Rybakov," he said. "You are a model immigrant. You collect Social Security. You publish in the Times. What can I possibly do for you?"
"The crooks!" Rybakov shouted, grabbing once again for his crutch. "The awful crooks! They won't give me my citizenship! They've read the letter in the Times. And they know about the fan. They know about both fans. You know how some summer nights the blades get a little rusty and you have to grease them with corn oil? So they've heard the trikka trikka and the krik krak, and they're scared! An old invalid, they're scared of! There are cowards in every country, even in New York."
"That's true enough," Vladimir agreed. "But I think what you need, Mr. Rybakov, is an immigration lawyer...For unfortunately, I am not..."
"Oh, I know who you are, little goose," Mr. Rybakov said.
"Pardon?" Vladimir said. The last time he had been called "little goose" was twenty years ago, when he was, indeed, a diminutive, unsteady creature, his head covered with a smattering of golden down.
"The Fan sang an epic song for me the other night," said Rybakov. "It was called 'The Tale of Vladimir Girshkin and Yelena Petrovna, His Mama.'"
"Mother," Vladimir whispered. He didn't know what else to say. That word, when spoken in the company of Russian men, was sacred in itself. "You know my mother?"
"We haven't had the pleasure of being formally introduced," Rybakov said. "But I read about her in the business section of the New Russian Word. What a Jewess! The pride of your people. A capitalist she-wolf. Scourge of the hedge funds. Ruthless czarina. Oh, my dear, dear Yelena Petrovna. And here I am chatting with her son! Surely he knows the right people, fellow Hebrews perhaps, among the dastardly agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service."
Vladimir scrunched up his hairy upper lip so as to smell its animal fragrance-a soothing pastime. "But you're mistaken," he said. "There is nothing I can do for you. I lack Mother's cunning, I have no friends in the INS...I have no friends anywhere. The apple has fallen far from the apple tree, as they say. Mother may be a she-wolf, but look at me..." Vladimir gestured expansively at the deprivation around him.
Just then the double doors opened, and, twenty minutes late for work, the Chinese and Haitian women-Vladimir's fellow junior clerks in the back office-walked in from the streets, laden with buttered rolls and coffee. They retreated behind the desks labeled china and haiti, tucking in their long, gauzy summer skirts. When Vladimir's gaze returned to his client, ten hundred-dollar bills, ten portraits of purse-lipped Benjamin Franklin, were unfurled on the table to form a paper fan.
"Ai!" Vladimir cried. Instinctively, he grabbed the hard currency and deposited it inside his shirt pocket. He glanced at his international colleagues. Oblivious of the crime just committed, they were stuffing themselves with morning rolls, bantering about recipes for Haitian crackers and how to know if a man was decent. "Mr. Rybakov!" Vladimir whispered. "What are you doing? You cannot give me money. This is not Russia!"
"Everywhere is Russia," said Mr. Rybakov philosophically. "Everywhere you go...Russia."
"Now I want you to place your upturned palm on the table," Vladimir instructed. "I will quickly throw the money in there, you put the money in your wallet, and we shall consider this matter closed."
"I would prefer not to," said Aleksander Rybakov, the Soviet Bartleby. "Look," he said. "Here's what we'll do. Come on over to my house. We'll talk. The Fan likes his tea early on Mondays. Oh, and we'll have Jack Daniel's, and beluga, and luscious sturgeon, too. I live on Eighty-seventh Street, right next to the Guggenheim Museum, that eyesore. But it's a nice penthouse, views of the park, a Sub-Zero refrigerator...A lot more civilized than this place, you'll see...Forget about your duties here. Helping Equadorians move to America, it's a pointless task. Come, let's be friends!"
"You live on the Upper East Side...?" Vladimir babbled. "A penthouse? On Social Security? But how can it be?" He had the dizzy impression that the room had begun to sway. The only enjoyment Vladimir derived from his job was encountering foreigners even more flummoxed by American society than he was. But today this simple pleasure was proving highly elusive. "Where did you get the money?" Vladimir demanded of his client. "Who bought you this zero refrigerator?"
The Fan Man reached over and pinched Vladimir's nose between thumb and forefinger, a familiar Russian gesture reserved for small children. "I'm psychotic," the Fan Man explained. "But I'm no idiot."