In Bukowski’s debut novel, an English teacher weaves his hopes about a young Ukrainian woman he’s met online with tales of tending to his cats and going to strip clubs.
When Frank Gelaitis, 29, a ninth-grade English teacher in Broken Hill, Ohio, sees a photo of Annie, 19, in his “Russian Romance” catalog, he’s completely smitten and can’t help writing to her. American women, he thinks, conduct dates like job interviews and they unaccountably prefer insensitive, unintelligent, or even criminally insane boyfriends to him. He lives in a trailer park and can’t move out because, without him, the park’s feral cats would starve. Frank sees himself as a modern-day St. Francis who believes in love and compassion; at the same time, he harshly judges most people and their pursuits, such as suntanning (“Am I the only one who understands [poet Robinson] Jeffers when he writes, ‘Be Angry at the Sun’?”). Especially disturbing to Frank is the “absurdist tragedy” of society’s expectations for men, whose only reward for conforming, he believes, is “to come home to what passes for ‘average’ American women these days: overweight, bitchy, demanding, and badly-aging.” (Frank describes his own body as “only average at best.”) Three or four times a week, he seeks escape in strip clubs. Some quasi-romantic successes, such as a young girl’s crush on him, boost his confidence, and as he prepares to visit Annie in the Ukraine, he hopes for the best. The pseudonymous Bukowski offers a complex portrait of his protagonist and gives him some genuinely admirable qualities, such as how he lovingly cares for felines. The author can turn a vivid phrase, as when he describes how Kiev’s “winding cobblestone roads [lead] past colorful little houses that must have sprung up like mushrooms in a book of fairy tales written by God’s youngest daughter.” But Frank’s ugly attitude toward women is pervasive, and he seems narcissistic to the point of delusion. The protagonist’s description of the aforementioned 13-year-old girl as a “smoldering Lolita” is also highly off-putting.
A tale with some well-written passages, but its narrator’s misogyny and narcissism will appeal only to like-minded readers.