Comic Hero’s Russian Roulette: A Spinning Moral Compass

The Russian Debutante’s Handbook , by Gary Shteyngart. Riverhead Books, 464 pages, $24.95.

Introducing Vladimir Girshkin, 25 years old, a Jewish immigrant born in Communist Russia, educated at a pricey Midwestern liberal-arts college, and by 1993 ensconcedinanEast Villagerailroadflat. He’s beset by girl trouble, cash trouble, and dubbed “Failurchka” (Little Failure) by his mother, a capitalist convert thriving in Westchester. This Girshkin-call him a distant cousin of Augie March and Alexander Portnoy-is the winningly resilient comic hero of Gary Shteyngart’s remarkable debut, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook .

The novel follows Girshkin’s wild rise from nonprofit drudgery in Manhattan to an entanglement with Rus-sian mobsters in the imaginary former Soviet city of Prava. This is a picaresque, sprawling story, so precisely imagined that you can’t help giving in to the pleasure of it and losing yourself in the improbabilities of its 450-page span. Girshkin’s narrative mixes acerbic observations of mid-90’s post-collegiate culture, obsessive insecurity and irrepressible libido with an affecting longing to be a fully realized American. It’s a strong, tasty cocktail.

A novel about immigration and assimilation, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook appears somewhat autobiographical. Gary Shteyngart was born Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad in 1972, then immigrated with his family to Little Neck, N.Y., at age 7. Igor/Gary must have experienced early on a disorienting encounter with American culture. In his senior year at Oberlin College (as good a model as any for Vladimir Girshkin’s “progressive Midwestern college”), Mr. Shteyngart first imagined a fictional alter ego-another young, confused Jewish Russian immigrant-and began work on a book. Seven years later, the novelist Chang-Rae Lee, who taught Mr. Shteyngart at the Hunter College graduate writing program, sent the manuscript to his publishers at Riverhead Books. And now Mr. Shteyngart, who lives in Manhattan, has introduced himself as one of the most talented and entertaining writers of his generation.

The story begins in 1993, with Vladimir Girshkin stuck behind a desk at the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society, assailed by a multinational mob who aspire to citizenship. He longs for his share of Manhattan success: “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.” When he’s not working, Vladimir hangs out with his dowdy dominatrix girlfriend Challah and his buddy, a dope dealer named Baobab Gilletti. Mr. Shteyngart’s description of Gilletti’s favorite subterranean meatpacking dive, the Carcass, is typically apropos: “Below one could be as anachronistic as needed: put some Lynyrd Skynyrd on the jukebox, whip out a stick of beef jerky, ruminate out loud on the contours of the waitress, or watch a trio of emaciated graduate students standing around the pool table with their cue sticks at attention, as if waiting for funding to appear.”

Enter Francesca Ruocco, a young polestar of Manhattan’s twentysomething intellectual elite. Somehow, after a chance encounter in a bar-she says he looks like Trotsky-she becomes Girshkin’s new girlfriend. Dating Francesca involves immersion in her world of rich, brainy hipsters and precipitates a cash-flow crisis. Girshkin will do anything for money, anything to prolong his “debut” with Francesca and her friends. He will even become involved with a Catalan drug dealer (in a hilarious detour to Miami) and then a wealthy, bizarre old Russian sailor and his Prava-based mobster son, the Groundhog.

When things go sour with the Catalan, Girshkin must flee Manhattan for Prava, trading the company of urban hipsters for the Groundhog’s Russian crime syndicate (whose fleet of BMW’s are “violated beyond comprehension with Jersey-style zebra-striped seats and wooly cupholders”).

But Girshkin is blessed with the adaptability of one who has never fully belonged. Full of pluck, and without a steady moral compass, he’s a fervent believer in what he calls “the refugee’s foremost responsibility of staying alive.” The funniest moments in the book come from his attempts to contribute to the gangsters’ profits. Posing as a representative of something called PravaInvest, and promising to start a literary magazine, he infiltrates and hopes to fleece Prava’s young, privileged American expatriates. His assessment of these affluent bohos has teeth: “here in fairyland Prava, bonded by the glue of their mediocrity, [the young Americans] stuck together as if they had all been born in the same Fairfax County pod, had all suckled the same baby-boomer she-wolf like so many Romuluses and Remuses.” As in New York, though, Girshkin is half-smitten with this group-especially the women.

Mr. Shteyngart is a stylish writer, adept at sentences that combine sensitivity of observation with great comic timing. Take as example Girshkin’s memory of his mother, newly arrived in America: “Sometimes she’d fall asleep at the table of their tiny Queens flat, a long knife in one hand, an English-Russian dictionary in the other, a row of pickles lined up on the chopping block, their fate uncertain.” Or this congregation of Russians in a Prava church: “Tired, stern faces that even in the meditative act of prayer looked ready to kick some ass for their fair share of beets, sugar, and a parking space for the beat-up Lada microsedan.”

The pathos of Girshkin’s displaced childhood, his fraught confrontation with his past in the Prava landscape, lends the book emotional ballast. And though the story’s climax goes madcap, though a few coincidences and just-in-time rescues feel creaky, a bit too Hollywood, Girshkin’s seasoned insecurities and unresolved immigrant identity give the story its substance. After all the rambunctious action, we’re left with a serious, moving picture of a downcast Girshkin, still adrift, still a hybrid of identities, still wondering how to beat loneliness in an America that’s not quite home.

Taylor Antrim has received a Hoyns Fellowship to the University of Virginia graduate fiction-writing program .