Though anyone less than intimate with the murderous grotesqueries of Stalinist Soviet history may find the centrifugal resonances of Alesh-kovsky's comedy flying above them like a flock of cranes, there's still a headlong rudeness enough to the book, plus wonderful Gogolian set-pieces, to insure profane liveliness even to Western innocents. The narrator is a classical Russian type: a professional crook and conman named Fan Fanych. Since before the Revolution, he's been everywhere, seen everything, done enough to find himself imprisoned for three lifetimes--but it isn't until the waning days of Beria's terror that he finally is called (what took them so long?) for his fateful interview with the KGB at the Lubyanka. The charge: raping and murdering a zoo kangaroo. The trial: showy. The sentence: the gulag--with a job clubbing rats. But while Fan Fanych is a prisoner, he's also able to be a witness (the books whizzes about surrealistically) of, for instance, the Yalta conference (at which one of Stalin's boots talks, a vestigial conscience the other boot is constantly hushing, stomping on). Even funnier and more surreal is a flashback to Berlin in the 20's, involving a turned-inside-out suit (the Gogol analogue) and the decisive part played by tattered clothing in the development of eary Soviet philosophy. Slap-happy, unregimented, it's the kind of contemporary Russian work--like Aksyonov's The Burn and Zinoviev's The Yawning Heights--which keeps the absurdist/terribilita tradition poppingly healthy.