A Few Streaks of Bright Life In a Doggedly Desperate Place

There Are Jews in My House , by Lara Vapnyar. Pantheon, 149 pages, $17.95.

Boiled potatoes in the first sentence, a beige oil cloth in the second. Yes, friends, we are in the much-feared terrain of émigré lit-a darkly remembered world where wet shoes stuffed with newspaper never quite manage to dry before they’re put back on again, where widowed aunts eat bologna sandwiches for breakfast as well as lunch and gossipy grandmothers declaim at length about the recalcitrance of their bowel movements. Welcome to the glum house-but prepare yourself for radiance.

There’s no question that Lara Vapnyar, who immigrated to New York from Russia in 1994 (not 1971, as The New York Times Book Review ‘s “Bear in Mind” section recently reported), has her dour territory down. Throughout There Are Jews in My House , bossy old ladies polish framed photos of dead husbands by spitting on the glass, while the bedsprings of joyless lovers “squeak with resentment.” The mood is anxiously brittle: Pens make “heart-rending sounds” as they scratch paper, clutched forks clang against plates “with an unnerving tinkling sound,” unnaturally prescient children are forever digging fingernails into sweaty palms.

Of the six stories that make up this slender volume, four are set in post- glasnost Russia, a doggedly desperate place, where erotic pleasure merges with dyspepsia (“her heart was beating so fast that it nauseated her”). The characters include a timorous sex-ed teacher who’s tortured by her ignorance of all matters sexual. The settings mirror the tone: In a typical room, the only window is blocked by a lilac bush. It’s this airless quality that explains why the reader, coming back to a story after a brief pause, may have to backtrack very nearly to the beginning to pick up the gist.

Is it worth it? Well, much use is made of the word “greasy”: not only dishrags and “badly typed pages” but also large breasts that “bounce like footballs” and have skin that is “greasy and yellow.” (“Greasy” sounds even more depressingly oleaginous when you factor in a Russian accent that skids the s into a z .) Still more is made of “gray” and “dusty”: hair, berets, clouds, roads, schools, hard-trampled snow, wool from torn quilted jackets, apartment buildings that stretch for miles like “fallen skyscrapers.” Dust is broken down by genus-not only “pieces” of gray dust stuck to the stringy hair of dolls, but “pellets” of it under the sofa.

Sounds like Mother Russia needs a boob job and a good vacuuming. And yet the two stories set beyond its borders-one in an émigré community in modern-day Brooklyn, the other in an unnamed Eastern hellhole under Nazi occupation-also “seem composed in a gray light,” as Alfred Kazin once wrote of someone else. Luckily, Ms. Vapnyar is able to summon up many surprising variations of this one shade. Snow, for instance, is sometimes littered with “shiny onion peels.” When sautéed or otherwise magically treated, we are led to recall, gray can occasionally luminesce.

Indeed, what rescues all this dolefulness from one-dimensionality is the author’s glowing attention to minutiae. She honors detail, as they say. “White froth” may be pulsing from under the lid of a boiling pot, but an excited conversationalist waits till she finishes her sentence before turning off the gas. Proud babushkas in wide black sneakers give off odors that could not be described more precisely if the author were an overly caffeinated chemist: a “mixed aroma of sweat, valerian root drops and dill.” Train passengers trudge down the street carrying “darkened cabbage, tubes of hard sausage, leaking cartons of milk, bottles of mineral water, cakes in crumpled boxes, but mostly chickens … with their yellow feet dangling from string-bags, and their bobbing bluish heads with dead eyes.” “Darkened,” “leaking” and “crumpled” set us up for “bobbing”-for the startling motion of life in death.

So are there streaks of bright life in all the drudgery. When the woman who is hiding Jews in the title story finally readies herself to betray them to the Germans, what sets her off is the Jewess’ admission that, according to her lover, her “‘you know’-she glanced down at those words-‘tastes like red currant jelly.'” In the smolder of rivalry that seasons their friendship, this exotic spark of color acts like an accelerant. The result is doom.

Such flares of dizzying sensuality save us from the suspicion that schoolmarms appear in this book solely to clean their fingers with kitchen knives, that coat racks exist in order to be rickety and supermarkets only to have dirty windows. Here, in all her glory, is a self-appointed “sex goddess”: “An aging woman in a shabby kimono, with a massive upper body, a sagging stomach, bony hips, and pale, skinny calves with twisted hairs along the bone.” But she is crowing!-showing herself off to her repressed little mouse of a niece, the sex-ed teacher. When bragging breaks out against all odds, can triumph be far away?

In these flickers of smuggled glee, the normally restrained Ms. Vapnyar reveals herself related to more flamboyant types in the émigré-lit biz-writers like Gary Shteyngart, Vladimir Sorokin and Josip Novakovich (many of whom were recently collected in a little jewel of a book edited by Boris Fishman, Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier )-giddy rowdies who find salvation in florid excess. Liberated at last by the admission that she doesn’t know squat about sex, the mouse of a sex-ed teacher borrows some of these writers’ efflorescent mischief to end the book on a high note. “I don’t know!” she whoops, releasing herself from solving the burdens of sex as well as of exile. She continues: “I enjoyed saying these words so much that it made me light-headed. I felt like hopping on one foot around the classroom singing, ‘I don’t know! I don’t know! I don’t know!'”

If not knowing brings such zest to Ms. Vapnyar’s condition, long may her ignorance grow.

Daniel Asa Rose, former arts and culture editor of The Forward, is the author, most recently, of Hiding Places: A Father and His Sons Retrace Their Family’s Escape from the Holocaust (Simon and Schuster). A Few Streaks of Bright Life In a Doggedly Desperate Place