Friday, May 18, 2007

The Dream of the Beta Immigrant

I credit my partner for steering me towards Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook, belated as my introduction was. Mostly I was intrigued by his laugh out loud responses to the book and his repeated, "Okay, just listen to this one part ..." exhortations. The book came out in 2002 and deservedly received an avalanche of critical praise and literary awards.

In The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Shteyngart's anti-hero Vladimir Girshkin (think little, think insignificant - Shteyngart has a real talent in the creation of his characters' names), is a Soviet Jewish immigrant living in New York in the 1990s. He describes himself as a beta immigrant, as opposed to his mother Yelena, who has the supreme confidence of an ancient Greek deity, and is what he calls an ultra successful alpha immigrant. He is a self-described "stinky Russian bear" and toils quietly and desperately as an immigration clerk, much to his mother's disappointment.

Vladimir is unkempt, lonely, underconfident, scrawny and overpowered by his successful entrepreneurial mother who advises him, somewhat sorrowfully, that he "walks like a Yid" and counsels him how to do otherwise. All the beneficial effects of a progressive Midwestern college education and his parents' nouveau riche status cannot confer a sense of confidence on poor Vladimir.

In a bid to make some quick cash and perhaps to disavow the status he has acquired as his mother's "little failure", Vladimir (also known by his diminutive Volodya) engages in a series of unfortunate episodes in Florida involving a predatory drug dealer and he narrowly escapes to the fictitious Prava, which, in its descriptions, sounds suspiciously like Prague, into the waiting arms of a Russian mafioso nicknamed the Groundhog who develops a profound affection for Vladimir. The Groundhog is the son of the mildly insane Mr. Rybakov, an immigration client who Vladimir assisted and whose best friend is a fan (yes literally an electric fan). Mr. Rybakov is rewarding Vladimir for helping him obtain (false) American citizenship with a new proposal to escape to Prava.

Vladimir reinvents himself in Prava with a newly acquired (and false) patina of American entrepreneurial success in the trendy European city known as the "Eastern European Paris of the 90s". He becomes a wannabe mobster creating an absurd pyramid scheme to dupe all the trendy ex-pats and frustrated potential Hemingways who populate Prava with too much money and time on their hands. Here I think the plot falters a bit with the ease by which the mafiosi and the ex-pats agree to his nonsensical schemes.

In Prava he is counselled that in dealing with his fellow Russians that he remember "cruelty, anger, vindictiveness, humiliation" are the "four cornerstones of Soviet society". Softhearted, selfish and weak, he tries his best to comply.

As is Vladimir's luck, things do not fare as well as hoped despite his enormous ill gotten gains and the pretty new girlfriend he finds in Prava. Whether duping honest but gullible Canadians out of their trust funds to start a non-existent literary magazine, being attacked by rabid skinheads or defending his girlfriend against a fleet of angry babushka-clad elderly ladies at the very "foot" of a destroyed statute of Stalin in the heart of downtown Prava, Shteyngart has a genius in deflating both 1990s American hipster conceits and the seedier East European stereotypes. He attacks all with a sharp, literate tongue and lusty humour.

And Shteyngart says only 50% of what happened in the book happened to him.