Love in a Siberian climate.
After back-to-back sorties into nonfiction (Gangsters & Gold Diggers, 2003; Bronx Boy, 2002), Charyn returns to the crime novel, setting his latest in Moscow, a place easily as murderous as the New York City of his ten-volume Isaac Sidel series (Citizen Sidel, 1999, etc.). In the Russian capital under the Boss, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, everyone walks warily, shoulders scrunched, the sneak attack a staple of everyday life: “Nobody could ever be spontaneous in Moscow, where each move, each gesture was tinged with ambiguity.” To put it mildly. Into this volatile milieu ventures a basically inept acting company, from outlying Tiflis, to perform, of all things, King Lear. It’s meant to be a six-week run in the kind of shabby, exurban theater sophisticated Muscovites wouldn’t be caught dead patronizing—until the amazing advent of a 19-year-old shambling giant of a man, Ivanushka Azerbaijan. Out of necessity one night, he goes on as Lear, replacing the troupe’s sulking actor-manager. No real experience, outrageously un-Lear-like in appearance, Ivanushka takes the stage and something alchemical happens. “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” he cries, and audiences (tiny at first, SRO later) go crazy: Moscow falls in love with him and a star is born. Even Stalin, in his own monstrous way, falls in love with him. Ivanushka, in turn, falls in love with his Cordelia, who has long since fallen in love with writer/NKVD agent Volodya Rustaveli, and also long since with Timosha, Maxim Gorky’s daughter-in-law, who for complicated reasons is being slowly poisoned to death by the aforementioned Rustaveli. Got that? Never mind, sooner or later, Stalin, that great simplifier, sticks most of the cast in the gulag.
The plot, however, rarely matters with Charyn. He is who he is: endlessly quirky, just about inimitable, and definitely an acquired taste.