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Amerika 101

Petropolis A Novel Anya Ulinich Viking: 324 pages, $24.95

February 18, 2007|Antoine Wilson | Antoine Wilson is the author of the forthcoming novel "The Interloper."

IN the opening scene of Anya Ulinich's first novel, "Petropolis," Sasha Goldberg, a 14-year-old resident of a post-Soviet Siberian town, raids her building's communal kitchen, making her way through various tenants' bologna, eggs, black bread, condensed milk, chicken broth and -- for dessert -- a congealed mass of cough drops in an old honey jar. She does this because the "fruit day" of the diet her mother has imposed on her has coincided with the first day of winter recess, and she is "determined to enjoy her vacation." She wants more than the single Moroccan orange her mother has set out for her, and she'll do whatever it takes to get what she wants, neighbors be damned. From the outset, Sasha is obstinate and feral, blinded by appetite from considering the consequences of her actions.

To top it off, she's a perennial outsider. Ulinich skillfully weaves together a staggering number of absurd situations into which Sasha does not fit. For starters, she's born a Jewish and biracial child of the intelligentsia in Asbestos 2, a Siberian town of ex-felon asbestos workers and their "straw-haired children." At school, physical education consists of "a round of 'Kill Goldberg,' played with a multitude of rock-hard soccer balls." Her first amorous experiments occur with a failed art student named Alexey who lives in a concrete pipe at the town dump; the result, a baby girl, is raised believing that Sasha is her older sister. When Sasha's mother arranges, fraudulently, for her to attend the prestigious Repin Lyceum art school in Moscow, the girl becomes an outsider among outsiders -- she doesn't possess the same drive or talent that got the other out-of-towners admitted. She escapes to the United States via a mail-order-bride agency and finds herself in Phoenix, affianced to an Aqua Velva-doused Intel technician named Neal. Out of the frying pan, into another frying pan.

A further escape sends her east in search of her father, who abandoned the family years ago for America. She lands in Chicago, where the philanthropic Tarakan family adopts her as their pet Soviet Jew. Having been raised without religion, Sasha mishears "adenoids" for "adonai" and does not understand the concept of a kosher kitchen. Throughout these misadventures, one can't help but wish she would find ways to adapt, but Sasha remains stubbornly true to her messed-up self.

"Petropolis" serves two masters. One is a coming-of-age story in which Sasha makes her way from Asbestos 2 to Brooklyn and eventually finds love and defines her own place in the world. The other is a satire, a relentless catalog of absurdities, human and otherwise, of Russian and American society. Ulinich is by no means the only writer to fold satire into a bildungsroman or vice versa -- Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" comes to mind -- but it remains a risky combination. Too much absurdity and Sasha's journey will become abstract, her transformation wooden. Too much coming-of-age sincerity and the satirical elements will feel off-key.

Ulinich's solution is to keep the story moving along at a blistering pace, keep the characters' thinking instrumental to the plot's forward direction and only occasionally drop into moments of deeper introspection, such as when Sasha's father considers his daughter's fate. "In this town of towheaded drunks, she would bear the weight of her difference, doled out in murmurs, taunts, and shoves. But now it occurred to Victor that she would suffer more than he ever had because, unlike him, she had been loved, and her punishment would come as a surprise." The novel squeezes good mileage out of these stolen moments, infrequent as they are.

Ulinich has a knack for the tragicomic; many passages have a Janus-headed quality to them. Take this description of Sasha's mother's boyfriend when she was in high school: "He had his name tattooed on his hand, a letter on each hairy knuckle. An eagle on a thick gold chain soared through his chest hair. He wore sweat pants with stirrups, and, on weekends, stood in line at the beer kiosk with an empty pickle jar." Funny? Check. Tragic? Check. Or this one from Sasha's days in Arizona: "In a city where no one walks, the motorists sometimes celebrate the unusual occurrence of a pedestrian by flinging objects." Check. Check. One gets the sense that Ulinich's artistic impulses are split between a generosity of spirit and an unforgiving wit.

It's her spirit that comes through in the end. When Sasha thinks, late in the novel, that "Americans liked to keep all the [bad stuff] that ever happened to them in precious keepsake boxes," she expresses a staunchly anti-sentimental approach to life. On the next page, Ulinich deploys the most emotionally devastating of Sasha's Siberian flashbacks, opening the narrative equivalent of a "precious keepsake box" to demonstrate that Sasha is coming to terms with her past. It's a deft trick, servicing Sasha's internal growth while letting her speak in ironic counterpoint.

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