Jewish immigrants have provided a rich source of comedy — some of it dark — in American literature. Think Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Gary Shteyngart and, more recently, Anya Ulinich. Make way for a fresh female voice. Yelena Akhtiorskaya, born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1985, immigrated with her family to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn — a.k.a. Little Odessa — when she was 7. Her first novel, "Panic in a Suitcase," about a family who does the same, is a riotous, satirical take on the aspirational escape-to-a-better-life saga. Her energetic prose is too controlled to be called manic, but it's got Red Bull-strength hyper-caffeinated intensity.
When Esther and Robert Nasmertov, a pediatrician and neurologist, immigrate in 1991 with their grown daughter Marina, her husband Levik, and their 7-year-old granddaughter Frida, they leave behind their son Pasha, an antisocial, up-and-coming poet with an "allergy to life-decision discussions" who is part black sheep, part source of irritation and fascination.
My grandparents landed in Brighton Beach from Eastern Europe in the 1920s, but this is not that generation's immigration story involving pogroms, persecution, revolutions, war, Iron Curtains, and a point of no return. After the fall of the Soviet Union, borders became porous and life-changing decisions reversible.
"It was strange," Akhtiorskaya's third-person narrator comments. "There had been all this tragedy and finality, and suddenly you just had to have the money for the flight."
The novel opens in July 1993, at the start of Pasha's first reluctant visit to Brooklyn, a trip compelled by his mother's diagnosis with breast cancer, which coincides with her 65th birthday. They are noisily mobilizing for a beach outing, for which Esther packs as if they are going on a long journey — although the Atlantic Ocean is right in their front yard, just beyond the Boardwalk.
We learn a lot about this scrappy, clamorous family in the novel's first few pages, as overstuffed as its members' perpetually bursting, haphazardly packed suitcases. By age 10, "Pasha had already demonstrated a catastrophic intolerance for the idiocy of others." At 20, he converted to Russian Orthodoxy "to stave off tendencies inherited from a line of depressives."
"His conversion," Akhtiorskaya writes with surgical precision, "was bound to remain an open wound in the family flesh, susceptible to infection."
This is a book you read for its vivid characters and language more than plot, and it's hard to resist quoting from it. Panic abounds in biting cultural and visual observations, as when Pasha, debating whether to cede to his family's pressures to relocate to Brooklyn, reflects, "His fellow countrymen hadn't ventured bravely into a new land, they'd borrowed a tiny nook at the very rear of someone else's crumbling estate to make a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original they'd gone through so many hurdles to escape, imprisoning themselves in their own lack of imagination." He notes that even the food is uncannily similar, "the only divergence being in abundance."
Akhtiorskaya's wit is mordant. Marina observes with disgust about her demoralizing first job cleaning for wealthy Hasids that their wall-to-wall carpets "were like a bib for the house, soaking up everything that never made it to the mouth." Her serially pregnant boss, she notes, has eyes "like neglected goldfish bowls, the water unchanged for months." At a poets' party on the Upper West Side, Marina "brought the glass to her mouth so often it would've been easier to keep it there." Pedestrians in sweltering Manhattan are sprayed by "air-conditioner piss" drizzling from above.
Although Akhtiorskaya has a predilection for contractions that seems at odds with the sophistication of her prose, that's a small quibble about images that expand on contact, like Lycra jeans. When the exhausted Nasmertovs sit around their living room, "Their collective sleep debt could've belonged to a class of medical students."
The second half of the novel takes place in 2008, 15 years after Pasha's first visit to America. While Frida's parents have directed all their energy toward forging ahead in their new life, their daughter, railroaded into medical school, feels the tug of what they have left behind — including her incommunicado Uncle Pasha, who has stuck out the collapse of the Soviet Union, his first marriage, and his rise and fall as Odessa's great but socially ostracized poet. Frida embarks on an Odessan odyssey that reveals a decaying city and culture that underscores a dismal reality: Neither path — emigrating or hanging tough — is rosy. (Akhtiorskaya's picture of Odessa isn't pretty, but her novel isn't about the current dire situation in Ukraine.)
To explain the malaise that sends Frida on her quest, Akhtiorskaya introduces the untranslatable concept of "zatormozhenaya," which she defines roughly as "existentially blocked" — a sort of hyper-jaded detachment. This quintessentially Russian concept from the land of such prematurely world-weary characters as Oblomov and Onegin is at the heart of this spirited, unusually promising debut about the challenges of chronic alienation and unrealistically optimistic hopes of progress. Reading Akhtiorskaya's tale of two cities is a high-impact verbal workout that may leave you breathless.
McAlpin reviews books regularly for the Los Angeles Times, NPR.org, Washington Post and other publications.
Panic in a Suitcase