Poetry Madness

Wednesday, July 10th, 2002


The Russian Debutante's Handbook

by Gary Shteyngart

It Was the Summer of '93 . . .

A review by Adrienne Miller

Remember 1993? The year grunge went public, pageboy haircuts on women were all the rage (I don't personally recall this, but that's what the book says), a movie "about a gay lawyer with AIDS, which was apparently a big hit in the States and was approved by many of that nation's sensitive people" was the year's big box-office hit, and "white-male ennui" was everywhere.

This rowdy, ribald, funny first novel is the tale of one Vladimir Girshkin's crazy summer of 1993. Vladimir, a Russian immigrant and his mother's "Little Failure" his mother is also someone who has said, "'Never let your guard down when warm weather suddenly appears, Vladimir. It is a silent killer, like venereal disease'" so the weight her opinion carries is up for debate is a recentish college graduate from a tiny, expensive Ohio liberal arts college, and is, as the book begins, "employed" (although "employed" seems to be overstating it a bit) at New York City's Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society. His $8-an-hour pay doesn't amount to much anywhere, especially in New York, and especially when a sexy Columbia coed named Francesca comes into the picture. New York City dating expenses being what they are, Vladimir finds himself quickly sunk into lung-clenching, ball-tightening debt. Although credit card debt is the American Way (way to go, credit card debt: you make America America!), Vladimir embarks, unAmericanly, on a money-making Ponzi scheme that takes him back to Russia. And in Russia, as in New York, Vladimir has no problem meeting women.

The hardest thing to do in a novel, it seems to me, especially a first novel, is to get your characters moving. (Note to first novelists: Beckett is not so great to imitate early on.) But The Russian Debutante's Handbook succeeds on this score and just about every other one I can think of right now. So let's call this superb debut the real thing an acute, accurate, intelligent look at America in the nineties.

Adrienne Miller is Esquire's literary editor.

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