“Vladimir Girshkin—twenty-five-year-old Russian immigrant, ‘Little Failure’ according to his high-achieving mother, unhappy lover to fat dungeon mistress Challah (his ‘little Challah bread’), and lowly clerk at the bureaucratic Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society—is about to have his first break. When the unlikely figure of a wealthy but psychotic old Russian war hero appears and introduces Vladimir to his best friend, who just happens to be a small electric fan, Vladimir has little inkling that he is about to embark on an adventure of unrelenting lunacy—one that overturns his assumptions about what it means to be an immigrant in America.” The Russian Debutante’s Handbook takes us from New York City’s Lower East Side to the hip frontier wilderness of Prava—the Eastern European Paris of the ’90s;#151whose grand and glorious beauty is marred only by the shadow of the looming statue of Stalin’s foot. There, with the encouragement of the Groundhog, a murderous (but fun-loving) Russian mafioso, Vladimir infiltrates the American ex-pat community with the hope of defrauding his young middle-class compatriots by launching a pyramid scheme that’s as stupid as it is brilliant. Things go swimmingly at first, but nothing is quite as it seems in Prava, and Vladimir learns that in order to reinvent himself, he must first discover who he really is.
Vladimir Girshkin, a likeable Russian immigrant, searches for love, a decent job, and a credible self-identity in Gary Shteyngart’s debut novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. With a doctor-father of questionable ethics and a manic, banker mother, Vladimir avoids his suburban parents and their desire that he pursue the almighty dollar as proof of success. Vladimir gets by as an immigration clerk, eking out a living in a cruddy New York City apartment while accumulating an array of quirky acquaintances, from a wealthy but disheveled old man (who claims his electric fan speaks to him) desperate for citizenship to Challa, a portly S/M queen. As a love interest, Challa is replaced by Francesca, a graduate student whose friends welcome Vladimir for the status he brings their bohemian clique, and whose parents encourage them to shack up (she lives at home) as visible proof she can maintain a steady relationship. 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
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