ABOUT halfway through "Absurdistan," Misha Vainberg -- the grossly overweight heir to the 1,238th richest man in Russia -- muses on his late father's dreams. Boris, his father, was what Westerners would blithely call a New Russian. Having mastered the capitalist system of swindling that replaced the Communist one, Boris died at the hands of a rival oligarch after murdering a rival from Oklahoma: For reasons he can't understand, Misha is barred from the United States (his visa application keeps getting denied), which he loves with an immigrant's tender fierceness. Boris, on the other hand, had idolized Israel, but only because the Soviets hated it (he was a Jew, as the saying goes, for persecution purposes only). When Boris actually visited Israel, his love faded and he discovered "a goofy, unsentimental little country, its sustaining mission nearly as banal and eroded as our own. I guess the lesson is -- freedom is anathema to dreams nurtured in captivity."
If there exists anywhere a more eloquent, concise summation of the disorienting effects of sudden democracy -- the inevitable disillusionment, in fact, that accompanies the realization of any long-held goal -- I have never heard it. Every silver lining indeed implies a cloud, and realizing this is one of life's sadder moments (no less sad for being repeated, over and over, in any good life). Though this lesson looms over the novel,"Absurdistan" is one of the funniest books in recent memory.
Gary Shteyngart's humor fits firmly in the satirical Russian tradition of Gogol and Goncharov (with Misha as Goncharov's neurotic character Oblomov), using dark absurdity as a way to look obliquely at a world so fractured and horrible that a straight account of it would be too painful. He has a knack for eerily apposite descriptions -- Vladimir Putin does, in fact, look "like a mildly unhappy horse dipping his mouth into a bowl of oats" -- as well as for set-piece routines, one of which, with shades of Woody Allen, features Jesus instructing a disciple to "diggeth and diggeth, night and day, mornings and afternoon, skippeth you the lunchtime." Shteyngart is a mature enough writer, though, to keep his zaniness from running away with his narrative (although he is also funny enough, luckily, to know better than to keep his humor out of sight for more than a page or two).
The book opens in St. Petersburg, the city of Misha's birth and adolescence, where he's biding his time and begging for re-admittance to the United States. He spends his days being attended to by Timofey, his "manservant" (a nice nod to Gogol), consuming whatever crosses his path -- food, women, Ativan, whiskey -- and making grandiose plans (shades here of Ignatius J. Reilly, John Kennedy Toole's corpulent hero in "A Confederacy of Dunces"). He phones his Park Avenue psychoanalyst and e-mails his girlfriend Rouenna, who describes herself as "[h]alf Puerto Rican. And half German. And half Mexican and Irish. But mostly I was raised Dominican" -- in other words, a New Yorker.
He met Rouenna at a strip bar in Lower Manhattan, on Nassau Street, which "runs parallel to Lower Broadway into an uncharted fourth dimension, one part Melville, two parts Celine" -- a beautiful and accurate portrait of that strange sui generis slice of maritime Manhattan that somehow sneaked into the 21st century. Misha's lovelorn evocations of New York are as moving, lively and vibrant as Augie March's are for Chicago, even if his money affords him the luxuries of wistfulness and, well, luxury that Augie lacked.
But ultimately, he loves New York for its life and possibilities, not its high living; he dreams of the Bronx, of "the old men playing dominoes for money ... teenage moms and dads talking sex at each other across the stoops, calling their little ones tiguerito, 'little gangster'; the sneakers hanging off the telephone poles; the tricked-out Mitsubishi Monteros pumping salsa across the streets; the moms reading the coupon pages like newspapers; the stores with no name but PLAY LOTTERY HERE; the roses sticking out of the iron grilles of housing-project windows."
Squalor, of course, is more tolerable when abroad; Misha's experiences in St. Petersburg, or St. Leninsburg, as he calls it, and in Absurdistan (presumably modeled on Azerbaijan -- oil, a dynastic rulership, warring ethnicities, a terraced capital, nefarious American interests) prove far less tolerable. He leaves Leninsburg with the comparatively paltry sum of $35 million, paid to him by his father's murderers out of his father's own fortune as a sort of blood money. In the Absurdi capital, a scrofulous Belgian diplomat sells him a passport, thus enabling him to enter the United States as a European. But things don't go as planned while he's in Absurdistan.
Absurdi customs officials surround him, asking, "Who are you by nationality?," a question whose true nastiness only a Russian Jew like Misha or Shteyngart can appreciate: Russian passports list the holder's "nationality," which is separate from the country of citizenship (a Russian Jew, for example, who comes from a family settled in Russia for centuries, alas, will always be Jewish, not Russian). The Absurdis treat him with a sort of heavily barbed philo-Semitism: A customs official declares, "A Jew shouldn't have to wait in line"; rebel Absurdis urge him to "talk to Israel" because of course that's the route to America (a formulation doubtless familiar to any reader of England's Guardian newspaper).
Throughout, Shteyngart deflects the constant, hovering presence of anti-Semitism with an earthy Jewish humor redolent of Mordecai Richler or Philip Roth; it feels deeply earned rather than appropriated and, without giving away too much, drives the evolution of Misha's self-awareness, which in turn drives this book.
At this point, they take away your critic's license if you fail to ask: Is the book perfect? Are there any problems? To which I answer: No, and sure, but who cares? The plot may get a little ragged as it tries to grow topical and relevant near the end, but really, that's a minor complaint: Read "Absurdistan" for Shteyngart's exuberant, wise, hilarious voice, not for his machinations. The novel is a long, funny, heartbreaking lament for home, whatever that means, and wherever that might be. *