cover image The Black Russian

The Black Russian

Vladimir Alexandrov. Atlantic Monthly, $25 (336p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2069-4

Alexandrov (Nabokov’s Otherworld) exports the American dream to the cold climes of Russia in this promising but plodding tale of reinvention. Growing up on the family farm in Mississippi in the late 19th century, Frederick Bruce Thomas learned valuable lessons about business and manners, but as the child of prosperous free blacks, he also learned how to successfully negotiate social and racial boundaries. In flat-as-concrete prose, Alexandrov, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Yale, chronicles the dogged rise and inglorious fall of Thomas as he traverses the globe in search of success. After his father is murdered by envious whites, Thomas moves from city to city, eventually shipping off from New York City for London and then Paris. There, he becomes fluent in French and serves as the personal valet to a wealthy American on the Riviera before making his way to his adopted home: Moscow. Smitten with the Russian way of life and flush with cash from various business ventures, Thomas changes his name to Fyodor Fyodorovich Thomas and petitions to become a subject of the czar. But even so deft a self-fashioner as Thomas can’t escape the cataclysms of the 1910s. Though Thomas’s is a fascinating and unique story, Alexandrov’s tedious and lackluster telling saps the tale of life. Agent: Michael Carlisle, Inkwell Management. (Mar.)