Having long since established himself as one of the gloomiest writers in America, it was probably only a matter of time before Plante found his way to post-Soviet Russia, where he enacts his latest inquiry into the nature and capacity of the human soul. Leningrad in the early 1990s would not have struck most even-minded observers as a great place to get away from it all. After the fall of Communism, the city grew dingier and more desperate, and its tourists tended to be gangsters with shady pasts rather than US college kids in search of nightclubs and cheap beer. Somehow, this makes it the perfect venue for Joe, an unhappy American who's come to Russia in search of a better life. Soon after his arrival in Leningrad, Joe meets Zoya, a prostitute who works for Gerald, an American pimp. Gerald is one of those Dostoyevskian monsters who are forever mocking the innocent and throwing out questions like, ""You want to believe there is redemption for the age of terror we live in, don't you?"" In point of fact, Joe does, very badly. A Catholic who has lost his faith, he is virtually haunted by the idea of redemption, and this leads him to try to save Zoya, first by sponsoring her visa application, then by offering to marry her. But Zoya wants to marry Gerald, whom she clearly despises, and Joe can't dissuade her. Why? In the world of Plante--dark with shadows cast by Graham Greene--there is nothing more seductive than grief, and everyone succumbs sooner or later to its charms: ""Because grief inspires everything that belief in God is supposed to inspire, and so rarely does."" Perverse, brilliant, and utterly shameless, Plante (The Annunciation, 1994, etc.) plays his characters like a master puppeteer. His manipulation of the reader may be less admirable, but there's no gainsaying his power on the page.