"I thought of the fairy tales I had loved as a child with their wonderful reversals, the ennobling of orphans and tailors, the humbling of haughty princes," muses the revenge-minded narrator of one of Suzanne Ruta's arresting and distinctive short stories. "In our time, of course," he adds, "fairy tale reversals have often been arranged on a massive scale. We call it revolution."
These observations come from a fairy tale about power politics told by a polite, conscientious shoe salesman who becomes the valet of a cynical, globe-trotting American foreign minister. And, for daring alone, this brilliantly imagined fable--which explains how the narrator becomes "the last prisoner to be liberated from Dachau"--would make Ruta stand out from today's crowd of narrowly minimalist writers. But what makes this and the other stories in her first book even more impressive is the assurance with which they reveal the unavoidably private side of the seemingly impersonal violence and hypocrisy of our century's history, the rich sense of perspective they bring to an assortment of darkly tragicomic, intimately domestic dramas. But, most of all, it's Ruta's voice that's so compelling, with its wry, worldly wise air of detachment that never quite conceals its compassion, with its uncanny knack for juggling lyricism, moral outrage and smart-alecky charm.
The 11 stories in "Stalin in the Bronx," only three of which have been previously published, move effortlessly from a tract house in suburban New Jersey and a vacation cottage on Cape Cod to a jail cell in Grenoble, France, a tourist hotel in Juarez, Mexico, and a converted bus bumping up and down the back roads of Central America. Ruta's characters are similarly varied, full of interesting depths and possibilities.
In the title story, Ruta's narrator extracts a bizarre secret from her mother, a flight of memory that involves a clandestine visit to the United States in the 1930s of Joseph Stalin, during which the old lady claims to have fed the Soviet dictator a lemon meringue pie. In the course of investigating this curious occurrence, the narrator broods about the bonds that link her dead father, who made a career out of his anti-Stalinism, with the men who opposed him in their virulent debates.
But, for a slyly sardonic blend of storytelling and mortally wounding satire, it's hard to beat another of Ruta's tales, which features an aged, wrinkled actor who's sent to observe basic training with a batch of raw recruits because "he is preparing to play the role of a soldier in an important production." Dumb, hopelessly clumsy, spouting strange malapropisms, this fellow--and the fate that befalls him and his cohorts--provides Ruta with a superb means of critiquing the politics-as-theater of the Reagan Administration, even as she nudges us into considering the ways we write ourselves into and out of its script.
"I took to my duties like a fish to water," notes another of Ruta's conscripted characters, "or, as the Chinese poet says, like a guerrilla army to the countryside." It's with a similar ease that we feel ourselves enlisting in her audience--and with a sense of mission inspired by the debut of a writer who's already a master strategist in the battle for our hearts and minds.