Soviet émigré Dovlatov died in New York in 1990, and since then, his reputation in America, bolstered late in life by the New Yorker and by fans, including Kurt Vonnegut, has faded. With luck, that reputation will be restored and enhanced by the first English publication (with a lively, playful translation by his daughter Katherine) of this brief, fabulous, partly autobiographical 1983 novel.
Hard-drinking Boris Alikhanov, unable to win publication approval from the authorities and set adrift by his ex-wife and their daughter in Leningrad, repairs to the countryside and takes a ridiculous but appealing summer gig as a literary tour guide at the Pushkin estate. There, he encounters a marvelous gallery of rogues, washouts and eccentrics like himself, exemplars of the 19th-century Russian type known as the "superfluous man"—smart, alienated, determined wastrels of their so-called potential. For a time, he seems to regain a grip on his life in this weird, intermittently hilarious rural idyll, but after his ex-wife comes to visit and asks him to sign a form permitting their daughter to emigrate with her to the West, Boris embarks on an epic bender. The portrait of Boris that emerges is of a man who seems most pitiable in that he asks no pity, offers no face-saving excuses, can't even muster the small consolation of self-delusion. He's simply stuck: "Any decisive step imposes responsibility. So let others be held responsible. Inactivity is the only moral condition." Told mainly in barbed, surprising dialogue—Dovlatov's trademark technical flourish was never to have two words in any sentence begin with the same letter, and the result here is a breezy, angular, associative style that seems almost Grace Paley–ish—this is an odd, dark, idiosyncratic little dazzler.
A black comedy of eyes-wide-open excess in the vein of Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes or David Gates' Jernigan. And a fine rumination on being Russian, besides.