Gary Shteyngart, Author . Riverhead $24.95 (452p) ISBN 978-1-57322-213-6

Orwell once remarked that the narrator of Tropic of Cancer was "so far from endeavoring to influence the future, he simply lies down and lets things happen to him." Shteyngart, whose sensibility is allied with Miller's, takes a passive character, Vladimir Girshkin, and makes him briefly proactive—with disastrous results—in his smart debut novel. Vladimir is the son of immigrants who came to the U.S. via a Carter administration swap (American wheat for Russian Jews); his father, a doctor prone to dreams of suicide and complicated medical schemes, and his mother, an entrepreneur who makes fun of her son's gait, give him the inestimable gift of alienation. In true slacker fashion, Vladimir, at 25, is wasting his expensive education clerking at the Emma Lazarus Immigration Absorption Society. A client, Rybakov, bribes Vladimir to get him American citizenship, confiding that his son, "the Groundhog," is a leading businessman (in prostitutes and drugs) in Prava—"the Paris of the nineties"—in the fictional Republika Stolovaya. Vladimir fakes a citizenship ceremony for Rybakov in order to curry favor with the Groundhog. Then, because he has unwisely repelled the sexual advances of crime boss Jordi while trying to make some illicit bucks to keep his girlfriend, Francesca, in squid and sake dinners in Manhattan, Vladimir leaves abruptly for Prava. Once there, and backed by the Groundhog, Vladimir embarks on a scheme to fleece the American students who have flocked to Prava's legendary scene. Although the satire on the expatriate American community is a little too easy, Shteyngart's Vladimir remains an impressive piece of work, an amoral buffoon who energizes this remarkably mature work. (June)

Reviewed on: 04/29/2002
Release date: 06/01/2002
Genre: Fiction
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