Synopses & Reviews
In this taut, atmospheric novel by the author of The New York Times bestseller The Geographers Library, a young American finds himself adrift in Russia amid murderous bureaucrats, Central Asian mobsters, and a conspiracy to sell Soviet bioweapons to the highest bidder
Jim Vilatzer was going nowhereworking in his parents restaurant, sleeping in his childhood bedroomuntil he ran up gambling debts that forced him to go somewhere far awayfast. He uses his Russian-language skills (learned from his émigré grandparents) to cadge a job in Moscow finding and interviewing survivors of the Gulag. At first, he only finds that they are well hidden and leery of sharing their horrific stories, but he also discovers that hes falling in love with their homeland. He is intoxicated by Moscows brooding, ironic atmosphere, its vast reservoir of entrepreneurial energy, its otherworldly churches and majestic subways. On any given day, petty indignities are more than offset by random acts of kindness.
Jims taste for gambling is satisfied merely by living in a city that teems with risk and promise. So he blithely accepts a big win when a chance meeting with a lovely aspiring actress leads not only to romance but also to her grandfather, a concentration camp survivor who does actually want to share his story. Soon Jim is on a roll, scoring interviews with four other survivors in as many days, learning harrowing and fascinating things about bygone atrocities and feeling like he has finally found where he belongs.
But his apparent success has earned him the attention of Russias Interior Ministry and the CIA. Jim has become an unwitting cog in a scheme to spirit Soviet scientists and their deadly secrets out of Russia and into the hands of the highest bidder. Pursued ruthlessly by both sides, he must flee again, this time to the lawless border country, where an economist-cum- mobster is preparing to peddle the worlds most dangerous technologies to whichever terrorists can muster the cash first.
Like Donna Leons novels of Venice or John Burdetts Bangkok series, The Unpossessed City makes of its setting an intricate, irresistible character. With taut, ingenious plotting and incisive prose, Fasman engages our most visceral fears and throws brilliant light on our most primal drivesto feel that we belong, to find love, to become better than we are.
Thirtysomething Jim Vilatzer lives at home and works in his parents restaurant. Hes going nowhere until gambling debts force him to make a change. He lands a job in Moscow (he grew up speaking Russian to his immigrant grandparents), interviewing survivors of the gulag for a not-for-profit company. His work soon makes him a pawn in a scheme to sell to the highest bidder four of the former USSRs top weapons engineers, which, in turn, leads him to become a target of Russian state security and the CIA. Fasman (The Geographers Library
, 2005), weaves two very different plotlines here, one the story of a man discovering a new world and realizing that his roots are more important than he realized, the other tracking the machinations of crooked Russian officials to sell fellow citizens for a profit. The first plot is deftly, even lovingly achieved; Fasmans Moscow is beautiful, tragic, brutal, and exhilarating. The second story line is convoluted and arcane. But, even so, the sum of the parts in this lyrically written novel is more than enough to keep readers engaged.
Thomas Gaughan, Booklist
Fleeing gambling debts and a messy life in the unglamorous D.C. suburbs, a likable loser goes to Moscow to seek, if not his fortune, perhaps a future.
If Fasman (The Geographers Library, 2005) was worried about the second- novel syndrome, he neednt have been. This adventure of a man who has no business having adventures is a pleasure for most of its length, stumbling only occasionally as the author tries to get a grip on the technicalities of the spy thriller formula on which he has hung his shambling, gauche, goofy love letter to Moscow. His hero is Jim Vilatzer, only child of a Russian father and Irish mother whose strip-mall deli in Rockville, Md., provides their son with not nearly enough income to pay off the Serbian gangsters running the poker games where Jim has run up a tab of about $24,000. It was bad enough for Jim that he had been dumped by his girlfriend, bad enough that he was living with his parents years after he should have started a family, but to have screwed up so badly as to put his parents livelihood in peril, thats the outside of enough. Thank goodness his lifelong friend Vivek, another child of immigrants, has the common sense to arrange a repayment plan, a course of action that sends Jim out of the country to one of his ancestral homelands, where he will be safely out of reach of the Serbians. Its not an insane plan; Jim speaks pretty good Russian, enough to get him a job at a sort of minor NGO where hes to spend his days collecting oral histories of life in the gulags and falling in love with Moscow. Its slow getting started, but then a sensational hookup with a gorgeous Finn finally sets him on the track of survivors who, alas, are not all they seem to be. They do seem to be of great interest to American intelligence.
Great fun in a great, if grim, place.
A gripping novel about the dangers and draws of contemporary Russia?from the author of The Geographer?s Library
With The Geographer?s Library, Jon Fasman made an ?inventive and spirited? debut (The New Yorker) that landed him on The New York Times bestseller list. Every bit as dazzling, The Unpossessed City takes readers into the Wild East that is Russia today. There we meet Jim Vilatzer?an American expat whose Russian language skills land him a job interviewing former inmates of the Gulag and ensnare him in a web of deceit involving the CIA, Russia?s Interior Ministry, and Central Asian arms dealers selling the most dangerous technologies to the highest bidder. From its brooding portrayal of Moscow to its riveting pace, The Unpossessed City is an atmospheric triumph in the tradition of Donna Leon?s novels of Venice.
About the Author
Jon Fasman was born in Chicago in 1975 and grew up in Washington, D.C. He was educated at Brown and Oxford Universities and has worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., New York, Oxford, and Moscow. His writing has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Slate, The New York Times Magazine, The Moscow Times, and The Economist. His first novel, The New York Times bestseller The Geographers Library, was published in more than a dozen languages.