Devastating grim-wit about Alexander Chubinets, whom Soviet humorist Felix Zabrodsky--himself made up by Soviet ÇmigrÇ Gorenstein--makes up to accompany him on an overnight trip on the mail train from Kiev to Zdolbunov. Chubinets, a crippled minor playwright in the manner of a true Dostoevskian/Tolstoyan storyteller, fixes Zabrodsky with a shadowy eye and keeps him up all night with his horrendous life story and its wasteland of tragedies. Chubinets is from the Ukrainian village of Chubintsy, where half the folk, even those without blood ties, are named Chubinets. Chubinets has had a childhood of relentless horror: ``Life is a doormat at the gate of heaven: before entering paradise, everyone has to wipe his feet on it, saints and sinners alike.'' He tells of the German occupation in the early 40's, the Germans at first being better rulers than the Soviets. But soon the Germans are burning huge heaps of people, tremendous hills that for months give off a stench of still-smoldering human flesh. ``The gigantic scale of bestiality in this century...is the work of ridiculous little mannequins who dreamed up their theories in bars and coffeehouses. As a result, the mediocrity of the executioners inadvertently detracts from the victims...[and] gives their fate a touch of indecency.'' Chubinets falls in with a theatrical troupe, writes a play about himself. At last the Soviets recover the town from the Germans, and Chubinets spends seven years in a labor camp near Siberia. All in Zabrodsky/Gorenstein's mind, of course. Details and moments throughout strike inventive lightning flashes of the highest order--but this is a novel, like salted fish, that not all will wish to chew on.