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The Ambassador's Son by Uzbekistan RPCV Tom Bissell from Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier
The Ambassador's Son by Uzbekistan RPCV Tom Bissell from Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier
Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier
Edited by Boris Fishman
"This timely anthology delivers on the promise of its title with rowdy, vodka-soaked tales of people run amok in the ruins of the Soviet empire. The writers-both natives of the Eastern bloc and Western travellers-plumb the cynicism and the hopes of places where a straitlaced missionary may quickly end up in 'three fistfights, two of them with children,' and a melancholy financier dodges assassins between snorts of cocaine. Vodka is ubiquitous, and one story, a Gogolesque fable, involves a small-town mayor transformed into a vodka bottle that gradually makes the rounds of his corrupt advisers. These stories and reports cut very fine the distinction between black humor and despair; like the young Ukrainian American who journeys to Kiev to find himself, you are left captivated by the hardship and the fervor, 'the musty smell of a lived life.'"
-The New Yorker
More and more, Eastern Europe seems to be becoming the Ã©migrÃ©-lit capital of the decade. Like Paris in the '20s, it hosts endless variations on the classic themes of innocent new world vs. jaded old world. The Wild East is your turf for indulging in consequence-free substance abuse and sexual investigation--dangerous but necessary paths to self-discovery. And, of course, there's the underlying theme of Those Crazy Europeans and Their Unfathomable Ways.
Like the Paris of the '50s, Eastern Europe gives pilgrims distinctive angles to view the triumphal United States, just inaugurating its dominance. The difference between escapist realms past and present comes in the knowingness any smart young person carries to college these days: No self-respecting American abroad would be caught dead rhapsodizing as guilelessly about Prague or Moscow as Hemingway and Fitzgerald did about Paris. Instead, we get winks and nods, two parts American dollars and senselessness, one part post-Communist tristesse.
Arthur Phillips's Prague taught us how to play Sincerity in 1990 Budapest; John Beckman's The Winter Zoo turned Poland into an orgy of roulette and, well, orgies; Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook escorted us into the grimy subconscious of the partly-assimilated Russian-American. This burgeoning genre ironized its own nostalgia on first appearance, mocking its craving for a world vanished in the mists of half a decade ago: "Five young Ã©migrÃ©s hunch around an undersized cafÃ© table," Phillips writes early in his book, "a moment of total insignificance, and not without a powerful whiff of clichÃ©."
Two new collections explore this somewhat weary universe from different emotional directions, with that divergence pointing out how appealing, and also how irritating, the worldview of self-conscious expat lit can be. The writers gathered in Boris Fishman's anthology, Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier, tend to sound like young, well-off smart alecks. And as such their stories treat visits to the region as opportunities for serious-minded young people to behave badly, in large part as conscious acts of negation--a sort of spring break for existentialists. Though there's some variation, in the main these authors, many of whom have published their first novels, write as committed outsiders who have discarded any hope of truly knowing either their host country or its people. Their protagonists are vague young men in quest of gravitas and some indefinable purpose.
The eternally frat-boyish Dan Quayle in Beckman's snotty "Babylon Revisited Redux" falls into a scam involving fellow Dekes in Poland. The aimless protagonist in Tom Bissell's "The Ambassador's Son" encapsulates the spirit of spiritlessness:
"I was bored. Usually I holed up in my bedroom, listening to Let it Bleed on my headphones, sometimes putting in an appearance at my job. I don't know if I had one friend in the Capital I'd ever seen while the sun was up.
Attitude is everything here."
The tone is knowing, beyond illusion, as if only a fool would venture East without packing his (and I do mean his: these are almost all boys' tales) irony. Which is a good thing, because the plotting trots out the oldest standbys with what can only be called pride--twist endings (Bissell), absurdism (Charlotte Hobson's Gogol pastiche "The Bottle"), Le CarrÃ© moral ambiguity (Phillips).
Fortunately, the snip and snarl of this prose frequently makes up for those lapses of originality. From sentence to sentence, snarkiness is its own reward. Bissell's leading man describes his nameless central Asian republic as "the kind of place that was so corrupt you had to bribe yourself to get out of bed in the morning." For Phillips's narrator, spying late in the Cold War is "incremental fidgeting with illusory gains, a game of arthritic cat and limping mouse."
At its best, that mood scores political points, warping national traditions and styles of feeling with eager perversity. What better way to convey a proud cultural heritage pimped for a passel of McDonald's? In Shteyngart's engagingly grotesque "Shylock on the Neva," the money-laundering protagonist pays off a struggling painter between assassination attempts: "Chartkov turned away from me, buried his face in his hands, brushed aside his tears, and sighed in a heartbreaking fashion--in other words, did everything possible to avoid thanking me for my generosity." Aleksandar Hemon's second-generation immigrant turns away from his Ukrainian father, ashamed of him for being "displaced, cheap, and always angry."
For the most part, these are witty pieces by smart, observant tourists. But only the actual Eastern Europeans--Shteyngart, Hemon, Vladimir Sorokin--venture into the heads of the natives. The rest loiter in Red Square, swilling vodka and sneering. -Minneapolis City Pages,November 19, 2003
"The former Soviet bloc countries are the source of a recent surge of literary talent, which is ably harnessed in this collection of 12 impressive, penetrating stories. Fishman, a Belarus native and New Yorker staffer, has selected stories of uniformly excellent quality, paying testament to the rich fictional reserves of countries where residents "sigh in appreciation for what was lost and what remained." The authors represented include natives of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union writing in English (Gary Shteyngart, Aleksandar Hemon) or appearing in translation (Miljenko Jergovic, Vladimir Sorokin) and Westerners with an abiding interest in the region (Arthur Phillips, Paul Greenberg). Although the pieces differ greatly, some common themes emerge, among them corruption, foreign identity and drinking-lots of it. Some of the pieces, like Sorokinâs "Hiroshima," venture into the absurd; all, however, are steeped in a gritty realism, giving the impression that they are not fiction but real accounts dealing with actual lives. Tom Bissellâs "The Ambassadorâs Son" presents a striking portrait of an elite American living in "one of the Central Asian republics youâve never heard of," living a wild life and managing to avoid paying the consequences. Similarly, "Gika" by Wendell Steavenson explores the sharp contrasts that exist in so many post-Communist countries, juxtaposing the lives of a beggar boy in Georgia, who goes barefoot when he begs to elicit more sympathy, and a moneyed narrator. Set everywhere from Russia to the Balkans, these stories transcend their locales, capturing the charged, chaotic aftermath of a social and political breakdown. (Oct.)
Forecast: Booksellers may confidently recommend this to readers looking for a solid introduction to the literature of post-Communist Eastern Europe and Russia, particularly fiction with an expatriate slant."
"Americans can learn a lot from Eastern Europe, which editor Fishman wryly terms the "Wild East" in his smart and stinging introduction to this altogether peppery collection of short stories by writers either from or well traveled in this rapidly changing region. An immigrant from Minsk, Belarus, Fishman, currently on the staff of the New Yorker, believes that Eastern Europeâs recent emergence from tyrannical rule is keenly relevant to events in Afghanistan and Iraq and that incisive fiction offers the best portal into the psychological, moral, and spiritual conundrums of people caught up in the chaos attendant upon the end of totalitarianism and the confusing infusion of democratic and capitalist imperatives. Fishman has selected a dozen diverse yet equally galvanizing stories notable for their dark humor, frank sexuality, violence, inventiveness, and fury. Gary Shteyngart, author of the award-winning novel The Russian Debutanteâs Handbook [BKL My 15 02] gets things off to a raucously brilliant start with "Shylock on the Neva," followed by provocative stories by such talents as Josip Novakovich, Aleksandar Hemon, Paul Greenburg, and Charlotte Hobson."
-Donna Seaman, Booklist
"What comes of an exploded empire is no less dramatic than what came before. Boris Fishman, who was born in Minsk and now lives in New York, has put together an uncanny anthology of new voices and new stories from this distinctly new and unformed post-communist world. There is a great deal to be learned here, and a boundless amount to enjoy."
"This just in: late-breaking news from the East, about liberation in all its
guises, with all its attendant exhilaration and heartbreak. Wild East
proves that the transformation of the former Soviet bloc has inspired a new
literature that is compelling, bold, lusty and smart."
- Ken Kalfus
"The wide range of vivid, virtuosic stories collected in Wild East
confirms what many lovers of literature have lately had reason to
notice: how lively and fresh the English language sounds when it is
spoken (or written) with an Eastern European accent."
"Editor Boris Fishman has confected a unique collection of works often
violent and lurid, brimming with sex and despair and betrayal - in short,
expressive of debauched, unfortunate human truths known most painfully to those who have lived in the countries of the former Soviet bloc."
- Jeffrey Tayler