First-novelist Shteyngart casts a cold eye alike on Clinton-era aimlessness and free-enterprise excess in Eastern Europe.
It’s Vladimir Girshkin’s 25th birthday in 1993, and his mother wastes no time reminding him that he’s a disappointment. Since the family arrived in New York from the USSR 13 years before, she’s become a successful businesswoman, while Dr. Girshkin adds to their coffers by defrauding Medicare. But Vladimir has dropped out of a progressive midwestern college to take a job at the Emma Lazarus Society helping new immigrants. One of them, the decidedly crazy Mr. Rybakov, wants to get Vladimir in touch with his son Groundhog, a mafioso operating in Prava, “the Paris of the ’90s,” an imaginary Eastern European city transformed by the collapse of communism into a mecca for criminals and novelty-seeking Americans. At first, Vladimir prefers to hang around the trendier sections of Manhattan, exchanging grad-student babble with the crowd gathered around girlfriend Francesca. But a misadventure in Miami with an amorous drug-dealer makes it advisable for him to get out of town, so Vladimir heads for Prava, where he persuades Groundhog to fund a Ponzi scheme based on getting American expatriates to invest in a literary magazine. Heavy drinking, observations about the void after communism, and a new girlfriend await Vladimir before his bamboozling comes to light and he must once again flee vengeful mafiosi. A sardonic but surprisingly moving epilogue finds him five years later in Cleveland, working at his father-in-law’s insurance company, thinking wistfully of the days when he lived “foolishly, imperially, ecstatically” in the Wild West of Eastern Europe. Himself a Leningrad-born American citizen, Shteyngart mercilessly exposes the moral ambiguities of late–20th-century life under whatever form of government. Though slightly chilly toward its large cast of characters, the novel is redeemed by its thematic sweep and Vladimir’s engaging brio.
Ambitious, funny, intelligent, in love with irony and literary allusions, as if by a lighter Nabokov.