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Moscow on the Hudson

THE RUSSIAN DEBUTANTE'S HANDBOOK , A Novel, By Gary Shteyngart, Riverhead Books: 454 pp., $24.95

July 28, 2002|DAN SCHIFRIN | Daniel Schifrin is a columnist for New York Jewish Week.

Two prominent themes in 20th century American literature are the immigrant experience and the all-consuming need to make--or keep--a buck. Gary Shteyngart, in his energetic, sparkling, often hysterical first novel, "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," turns those themes on their head as he tells the story of a 25-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant, Vladimir Girshkin, who is neither properly assimilated nor able to leverage the advantages of the American Dream as his parents have done. Vladimir dreams of becoming an "alpha immigrant" like his mother, a successful hedge-fund manager. Instead, he works for an hourly wage at Manhattan's Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society, remaining "the immigrant's immigrant, the expatriate's expatriate, enduring victim of every practical joke the late twentieth century had to offer."

Expensively educated and extensively pampered by his family, Vladimir falls in love with a scion of New York's Italian American community, Francesca Ruocco, and quickly blows several thousand dollars trying to impress her. The resonant details of his entrance into her party circuit--"Eyebrow waxing fees, aged balsamic vinegar for the Ruoccos, bottles of Calvados brought to parties: $275.00"--recall the inspired stupor of "Bright Lights, Big City" and the absurd rituals and social jealousies of "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

Vladimir's attempts to recoup his losses lead him, in a dazzling comic set piece, into the clutches of the Catalan mobsters. He tries to escape, only to find himself back in Eastern Europe, where a former immigration client introduces him to his son, a Ukrainian thug nicknamed the Groundhog. Realizing that he has to pull his weight or be pursued by two crime networks, Vladimir rolls up his sleeves and creates a (temporarily) successful pyramid scheme in the Prague-like city of Prava.

The fantastical transformation of a soft-chested, Oberlin-educated young man into a Mafioso furthers Shteyngart's idea of how fantasies of America create their own reality. Apparently it's enough for Vladimir to dress his gun-toting colleagues in Perry Ellis windbreakers in order to be proclaimed a business genius. Unfortunately, this insight isn't sufficient to sustain the narrative thrust of the book's second act, as the churning drama of New York devolves into the petty anxieties of rich Yankee expats.

Vladimir's attempt to outwit his Mafia handlers, despite the homage to a tradition of Russian literary absurdism, begins to resemble a Hollywood movie, complete with explosions, car wrecks and improbable coincidences. While Shteyngart's descriptive and ironic language, comic sense and eye for detail are still very much in evidence in the European section, the story seems to lose its moorings once pulled out of American soil.

It is perhaps one lesson of the impressive but imperfect "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" that the American Dream--as well as the telling of it--can't quite make it in the Old Country.

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