Fleeing gambling debts and a messy life in the unglamorous D.C. suburbs, a likable loser goes to Moscow to seek, if not his fortune, perhaps a future.
If Fasman (The Geographer’s Library, 2005) was worried about the second-novel syndrome, he needn’t have been. This adventure of a man who has no business having adventures is a pleasure for most of its length, stumbling only occasionally as the author tries to get a grip on the technicalities of the spy thriller formula on which he has hung his shambling, gauche, goofy love letter to Moscow. His hero is Jim Vilatzer, only child of a Russian father and Irish mother whose strip-mall deli in Rockville, Md., provides their son with not nearly enough income to pay off the Serbian gangsters running the poker games where Jim has run up a tab of about $24,000. It was bad enough for Jim that he had been dumped by his girlfriend, bad enough that he was living with his parents years after he should have started a family, but to have screwed up so badly as to put his parents’ livelihood in peril, that’s the outside of enough. Thank goodness his lifelong friend Vivek, another child of immigrants, has the common sense to arrange a repayment plan, a course of action that sends Jim out of the country to one of his ancestral homelands, where he will be safely out of reach of the Serbians. It’s not an insane plan; Jim speaks pretty good Russian, enough to get him a job at a sort of minor NGO where he’s to spend his days collecting oral histories of life in the gulags and falling in love with Moscow. It’s slow getting started, but then a sensational hookup with a gorgeous Finn finally sets him on the track of survivors who, alas, are not all they seem to be. They do seem to be of great interest to American intelligence.
Great fun in a great, if grim, place.