THE IRONY TOWER: Soviet Artists in a Time of Glasnost by Andrew Solomon (Knopf: $25; 295 pp.). Their apartments might be Spartan, their economy a disaster, but nearly all of the Soviet artists Andrew Solomon interviewed in dozens of discussions late in the Moscow night maintain a "shimmeringly bright" outlook. In this vivid work of reportage, Solomon traces their optimism to an incorrigible idealism which he believes will prevent Mikhail Gorbachev from modeling Russia after the pragmatic West, just as it thwarted similar efforts by leaders from Peter the Great to Ivan the Terrible.
Solomon does not seem to see that the Russians' lofty ideals remain as unrealized in their art as they do in their politics: The dozens of sketches reproduced in these pages are far less subtle and telling than the artists' rhetoric leads us to expect. Solomon also errs in concluding that because the Russians' idealism perdured through Peter the Great's day (when few were materially wealthy), it will do so in today's world of have-lots and have-nots. Yet these are mere glitches in a work of original wit.