A promising first collection of stories in English by recent Russian ÇmigrÇ Iossel that together form an impressionistic picture of growing up in an increasingly cynical and malfunctioning Soviet Union. ``Beyond the Pale'' introduces the narrator, young Jewish dissenter Yevgheny Litovtsev, or Zheka, living in Leningrad and forced to do demeaning jobs while he struggles to write. In the title story, he recalls his reactions to Yuri Gagarin's space flight, when those ``who were squeezed to death in the happy crowd of Gagarin's great victory were happier than they were ever likely to be if they kept on living.'' These thoughts are expanded on through Yevgheny's bittersweet memories of gathering mushrooms in the countryside as a six-year-old, when all things were possible and ``Russia was joyous and looked eternal beyond the window.'' Each subsequent story chronicles the character's growing disillusionment with the system, itself deteriorating but nonetheless intrusive and punitive. He unwittingly humiliates his loyal communist grandfather (``Red Square'') by loudly accusing him of not really loving Lenin; then spends a feckless college summer as a train conductor (``Wings''), and, later, in ``Bolgoye'' (chosen for the Best American Short Stories 1991), recalls the emotionally confused days before he was finally granted an exit visa. The last piece (``Insomnia'') is a claustrophobic but affecting chronicle of what happens to a writer who's suddenly thrust into an alien culture where his talents are worthless. Like Nabokov, Iossel has brilliantly mastered English, but these stories, accomplished as they are, are marred by the ever- present narrator, whose legitimately intense emotions and responses need some leavening, some other perspective. Still, a notable debut.
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