Two cousins emigrate from Armenia, finding their destinies in backgammon and pro wrestling.
You needn’t be well schooled in either sport to appreciate the debut novel by McCormick (Desert Boys: Stories, 2016); both serve mainly as metaphors for the mix of smarts, luck, and fakery that are essential to every immigrant survival story. In the early 1970s, cousins Ruben and Avo were as close as brothers in a rural Armenian town that promises nothing but endless reprosecutions of the country’s genocidal past. One escape hatch is competitive backgammon, and the game has a prodigy in Mina, a young woman who earns a spot in a tournament in Paris. If Avo knocks down her teacher, killing him, was it an accident, or was Avo angling for a seat on the flight? Regardless, Ruben finds his way to France while Avo heads to California; both become involved in secret terrorist plots against Armenia’s Turkish aggressors. A falling-out with those terrorists gets Avo a scar on his forehead and a gig in pro wrestling, where he’s known as the Brow Beater. The busy plotting (Avo’s former manager narrates chapters that move the story into the late 1980s) makes the novel a bit sodden, and anybody looking for lively depictions of wrestling bouts will be disappointed. McCormick is more focused on pro wrestling’s notion of kayfabe, of keeping up appearances to advance a narrative, a sustained theme in Ruben's and Avo’s lives outside of Armenia. On that front, he fully inhabits the cousins’ lives with passion and Slavic dark humor. The truth, McCormick writes “is the only thing that can pin a heart open or seal it off forever.” The pathos of this story comes from the struggle of its protagonists to do either.
A busy but well-constructed tale about new lands and the ghosts of an old one.