Read an Excerpt
The Night in Question
June 15, 2001
I am Misha Borisovich Vainberg, age thirty, a grossly overweight man with small, deeply set blue eyes, a pretty Jewish beak that brings to mind the most distinguished breed of parrot, and lips so delicate you would want to wipe them with the naked back of your hand.
For many of my last years, I have lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, neither by choice nor by desire. The City of the Czars, the Venice of the North, Russia’s cultural capital . . . forget all that. By the year 2001, our St. Leninsburg has taken on the appearance of a phantasmagoric third-world city, our neoclassical buildings sinking into the crap-choked canals, bizarre peasant huts fashioned out of corrugated metal and plywood colonizing the broad avenues with their capitalist iconography (cigarette ads featuring an American football player catching a hamburger with a baseball mitt), and what is worst of all, our intelligent, depressive citizenry has been replaced by a new race of mutants dressed in studied imitation of the West, young women in tight Lycra, their scooped-up little breasts pointing at once to New York and Shanghai, with men in fake black Calvin Klein jeans hanging limply around their caved-in asses.
The good news is that when you’re an incorrigible fatso like me—325 pounds at last count—and the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia, all of St. Leninsburg rushes out to service you: the drawbridges lower themselves as you advance, and the pretty palaces line up alongside the canal banks, thrusting their busty friezes in your face. You are blessed with the rarest treasure to be found in this mineral-rich land. You are blessed with respect.
On the night of June 15 in the catastrophic year 2001, I was getting plenty of respect from my friends at a restaurant called the Home of the Russian Fisherman on Krestovskiy Island, one of the verdant islands caught in the delta of the Neva River. Krestovskiy is where we rich people pretend to be living in a kind of post-Soviet Switzerland, trudging along the manicured bike paths built ’round our kottedzhes and town khauses, and filling our lungs with parcels of atmosphere seemingly imported from the Alps.
The Fisherman’s gimmick is that you catch your own fish out of a man-made lake, and then for about US$50 per kilo, the kitchen staff will smoke it for you or bake it on coals. On what the police would later call “the night in question,” we were standing around the Spawning Salmon pontoon, yelling at our servants, drinking down carafes of green California Riesling, our Nokia mobilniki ringing with the social urgency that comes only when the White Nights strangle the nighttime, when the inhabitants of our ruined city are kept permanently awake by the pink afterglow of the northern sun, when the best you can do is drink your friends into the morning.
Let me tell you something: without good friends, you might as well drown yourself in Russia. After decades of listening to the familial agitprop of our parents (“We will die for you!” they sing), after surviving the criminal closeness of the Russian family (“Don’t leave us!” they plead), after the crass socialization foisted upon us by our teachers and factory directors (“We will staple your circumcised khui to the wall!” they threaten), all that’s left is that toast between two failed friends in some stinking outdoor beer kiosk.
“To your health, Misha Borisovich.”
“To your success, Dimitry Ivanovich.”
“To the army, the air force, and the whole Soviet fleet . . . Drink to the bottom!”
I’m a modest person bent on privacy and lonely sadness, so I have very few friends. My best buddy in Russia is a former American I like to call Alyosha-Bob. Born Robert Lipshitz in the northern reaches of New York State, this little bald eagle (not a single hair on his dome by age twenty-five) flew to St. Leninsburg eight years ago and was transformed, by dint of alcoholism and inertia, into a successful Rus- sian biznesman renamed Alyosha, the owner of ExcessHollywood, a riotously profitable DVD import-export business, and the swain of Svetlana, a young Petersburg hottie. In addition to being bald, Alyosha-Bob has a pinched face ending in a reddish goatee, wet blue eyes that fool you with their near-tears, and enormous flounder lips cleansed hourly by vodka. A skinhead on the metro once described him as a gnussniy zhid, or a “vile-looking Yid,” and I think most of the populace sees him that way. I certainly did when I first met him as a fellow undergraduate at Accidental College in the American Midwest a decade ago.
Alyosha-Bob and I have an interesting hobby that we indulge whenever possible. We think of ourselves as the Gentlemen Who Like to Rap. Our oeuvre stretches from the old-school jams of Ice Cube, Ice-T, and Public Enemy to the sensuous contemporary rhythms of ghetto tech, a hybrid of Miami bass, Chicago ghetto tracks, and Detroit electronica. The modern reader may be familiar with “Ass-N-Titties” by DJ Assault, perhaps the seminal work of the genre.
On the night in question, I got the action started with a Detroit ditty I enjoy on summer days:
Heah I come
Shut yo mouf
And bite yo tongue.
Alyosha-Bob, in his torn Helmut Lang slacks and Accidental College sweatshirt, picked up the tune:
You think you bad?
Let me see you
Bounce dat ass.
Our melodies rang out over the Russian Fisherman’s four pontoons (Spawning Salmon, Imperial Sturgeon, Capricious Trout, and Sweet Little Butterfish), over this whole tiny man-made lake, whatever the hell it’s called (Dollar Lake? Euro Pond?), over the complimentary-valet-parking-lot where one of the oafish employees just dented my new Land Rover.
Heah come dat bitch
From round de way
Box my putz
Like Cassius Clay.
“Sing it, Snack Daddy!” Alyosha-Bob cheered me on, using my Accidental College nickname.
My name is Vainberg
I like ho’s
Sniff ’em out
Wid my Hebrew nose
Pump that shit
From ’round the back
Ack ack ack
This being Russia, a nation of busybody peasants thrust into an awkward modernity, some idiot will always endeavor to spoil your good fun. And so the neighboring biznesman, a sunburned midlevel killer standing next to his pasty girlfriend from some cow-filled province, starts in with “Now, fellows, why do you have to sing like African exchange students? You both look so cultured”—in other words, like vile-looking Yids—“why don’t you declaim some Pushkin instead? Didn’t he have some nice verses about the White Nights? That would be very seasonal.”
“Hey, if Pushkin were alive today, he’d be a rapper,” I said.
“That’s right,” Alyosha-Bob said. “He’d be M.C. Push.”
“Fight the power!” I said in English.
Our Pushkin-loving friend stared at us. This is what happens when you don’t learn English, by the way. You’re always at a loss for words. “God help you children,” he finally said, taking his lady friend by one diminutive arm and guiding her over to the other side of the pontoon.
Children? Was he talking about us? What would an Ice Cube or an Ice-T do in this situation? I reached for my mobilnik, ready to dial my Park Avenue analyst, Dr. Levine, to tell him that once again I had been insulted and injured, that once again I had been undermined by a fellow Russian.
And then I heard my manservant, Timofey, ringing his special hand bell. The mobilnik fell out of my hand, the Pushkin lover and his girlfriend disappeared from the pontoon, the pontoon itself floated off into another dimension, even Dr. Levine and his soft American ministrations were reduced to a distant hum.
It was feeding time.
With a low bow, manservant Timofey presented me with a tray of blackened sturgeon kebabs and a carafe of Black Label. I fell down on a hard plastic chair that twisted and torqued beneath my weight like a piece of modern sculpture. I bent over the sturgeon, sniffing it with closed eyes as if offering a silent prayer. My feet were locked together, my ankles grinding into each other with expectant anxiety. I prepared for my meal in the usual fashion: fork in my left hand; my dominant right clenched into a fist on my lap, ready to punch anyone who dared take away my food.
I bit into the sturgeon kebab, filling my mouth with both the crisp burnt edges and the smooth mealy interior. My body trembled in- side my leviathan Puma tracksuit, my heroic gut spinning counter- clockwise, my two-scoop breasts slapping against each other. The usual food-inspired images presented themselves. Myself, my Beloved Papa, and my young mother in a hollowed-out boat built to resemble a white swan floating past a grotto, triumphant Stalin-era music echoing around us (“Here’s my passport! What a passport! It’s my great red Soviet passport!”), Beloved Papa’s wet hands rubbing my tummy and skirting the waistband of my shorts, and Mommy’s smooth, dry ones brushing against the nape of my neck, a chorus of their hoarse, tired voices saying, “We love you, Misha. We love you, bear cub.”
My body fell into a rocking motion like the religious people rock when they’re deep in the thrall of their god. I finished off the first kebab and the one after that, my chin oily with sturgeon juices, my breasts shivering as if they’d been smothered with packets of ice. Another chunk of fish fell into my mouth, this one well dusted with parsley and olive oil. I breathed in the smells of the sea, my right fist still clenched, fingers digging into palm, my nose touching the plate, sturgeon extract coating my nostrils, my little circumcised khui burning with the joy of release.
And then it was over. And then the kebabs were gone. I was left with an empty plate. I was left with nothing before me. Ah, dear me. Where was I now? An abandoned bear cub without his li’l fishy. I splashed a glass of water on my face and dabbed myself off with a napkin Timofey had tucked into my tracksuit. I picked up the carafe of Black Label, pressed it to my cold lips, and, with a single tilt of the wrist, emptied it into my gullet.
The world was golden around me, the evening sun setting light to a row of swaying alders; the alders abuzz with the warble of siskin birds, those striped yellow fellows from our nursery rhymes. I turned pastoral for a moment, my thoughts running to Beloved Papa, who was born in a village and for whom village life should be prescribed, as only there—half asleep in a cowshed, naked and ugly, but sober all the same—do the soft tremors of what could be happiness cross his swollen Aramaic face. I would have to bring him here one day, to the Home of the Russian Fisherman. I would buy him a few chilled bottles of his favorite Flagman vodka, take him out to the farthest pontoon, put my arm around his dandruff-dusted shoulders, press his tiny lemur head into one of my side hams, and make him understand that despite all the disappointments I have handed him over the past twenty years, the two of us are meant to be together forever.
Emerging from the food’s thrall, I noticed that the demographics of the Spawning Salmon pontoon were changing. A group of young coworkers in blue blazers had shown up, led by a buffoon in a bow tie who played the role of a “fun person,” breaking the coworkers up into teams, thrusting fishing rods into their weak hands, and leading them in a chorus of “Fi-ish! Fi-ish! Fi-ish!” What the hell was going on here? Was this the first sign of an emerging Russian middle class? Did all these idiots work for a German bank? Perhaps they were holders of American MBAs.
Meanwhile, all eyes fell on a striking older woman in a full-length white gown and black Mikimoto pearls, casting her line into the man-made lake. She was one of those mysteriously elegant women who appeared to have walked in from the year 1913, as if all those red pioneer scarves and peasant blouses from our jackass Soviet days had never alighted on her delicate shoulders.
I am not enamored of such people, I must say. How is it possi- ble to live outside of history? Who can claim immunity to it by dint of beauty and breeding? My only consolation was that neither this charming creature nor the young Deutsche Bank workers now shouting in unison “Sal-mon! Sal-mon!” would catch any tasty fish today. Beloved Papa and I have an agreement with the management of the Home of the Russian Fisherman restaurant—whenever a Vainberg takes up a rod, the owner’s nephew puts on his Aqua-Lung, swims under the pontoons, and hooks the best fish on our lines. So all Czarina with the Black Pearls would get for her troubles would be a tasteless, defective salmon.
You can’t ignore history altogether.
On the night in question, Alyosha-Bob and I were joined by three lovely females: Rouenna, the love of my life, visiting for two weeks from the Bronx, New York; Svetlana, Alyosha-Bob’s dark-eyed Tatar beauty, a junior public-relations executive for a local chain of perfume shops; and Beloved Papa’s twenty-one-year-old provincial wife, Lyuba.
I must say, I was anxious about bringing these women together (also, I have a generalized fear of women). Svetlana and Rouenna have aggressive personalities; Lyuba and Rouenna were once lower-class and lack refinement; and Svetlana and Lyuba, being Russian, present with symptoms of mild depression rooted in early childhood trauma (cf. Papadapolis, Spiro, “It’s My Pierogi: Transgenerational Conflict in Post-Soviet Families,” Annals of Post-Lacanian Psychiatry, Boulder/Paris, Vol. 23, No. 8, 1997). A part of me expected discord among the women, or what the Americans call “fireworks.” Another part of me just wanted to see that snobby bitch Svetlana get her ass kicked.
While Alyosha-Bob and I were rapping, Lyuba’s servant girl had been making the girls pretty with lipstick and pomade in one of the Fisherman’s changing huts, and when they joined us on the pontoon, they reeked of fake citrus (and a touch of real sweat), their dainty lips aglow in the summer twilight, their teeny voices abuzz with interesting conversation about Stockmann, the celebrated Finnish emporium on St. Leninsburg’s main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt. They were discussing a summer special—two hand-fluffed Finnish towels for US$20—both towels distinguished by their highly un-Russian, shockingly Western color: orange.
Listening to the tale of the orange towel, I got a little engorged down in the circumcised purple half-khui department. These women of ours were so cute! Well, not my stepmother, Lyuba, obviously, who is eleven years younger than me and happens to spend her nights moaning unconvincingly under the coniferous trunk of Beloved Papa, with his impressive turtlelike khui (blessed memories of it swinging about in the bathtub, my curious toddler hands trying to snatch it).
And I wasn’t hot for Svetlana, either; despite her fashionable Mongol cheekbones, her clingy Italian sweater, and that profoundly calculated aloofness, the supposedly sexy posturing of the educated Russian woman, despite all that, let me tell you, I absolutely refuse to sleep with one of my co-nationals. God only knows where they’ve been.
So that leaves me with my Rouenna Sales (pronounced Sah-lez, in the Spanish manner), my South Bronx girlie-girl, my big-boned precious, my giant multicultural swallow, with her crinkly hair violently pulled back into a red handkerchief, with her glossy pear-shaped brown nose always in need of kisses and lotion.
“I think,” said my stepmom, Lyuba, in English for Rouenna’s benefit, “I thought,” she added. She was having trouble with her tenses. “I think, I thought . . . I think, I thought . . .”
I sink, I sought . . . I sink, I sought . . .
“What are you sinking, darling?” asked Svetlana, tugging on her line impatiently.
But Lyuba would not be so easily discouraged from express- ing herself in a bright new language. Married for two years to the 1,238th richest man in Russia, the dear woman was finally coming to terms with her true worth. Recently a Milanese doctor had been hired to burn out the malicious orange freckles ringing her coarse nubbin, while a Bilbao surgeon was on his way to chisel out the baby fat flapping around her tufty teenager’s cheeks (the fat actually made her look more sympathetic, like a ruined farm girl just coming out of her adolescence).
“I think, I thought,” Lyuba said, “that orange towel so ugly. For girl is nice lavender, for boy like my husband, Boris, light blue, for servant black because her hand already dirty.”
“Damn, sugar,” Rouenna said. “You’re hard-core.”
“What it is ‘harcourt’?”
“Talking shit about servants. Like they got dirty hands and all.”
“I sink . . .” Lyuba grew embarrassed and looked down at her own hands, with their tough provincial calluses. She whispered to me in Russian, “Tell her, Misha, that before I met your papa, I was unfortunate, too.”
“Lyuba was poor back in 1998,” I explained to Rouenna in En- glish. “Then my papa married her.”
“Is that right, sister?” Rouenna said.
“You are calling me sister?” Lyuba whispered, her sweet Russian soul atremble. She put down her fishing line and spread open her arms. “Then I will be your sister, too, Rouennachka!”
“It’s just an African-American expression,” I told her.
“It sure is,” Rouenna said, coming over to give Lyuba a hug, which the temperate girl tearfully reciprocated. “ ’Cause, as far as I can tell, all of you Russians are just a bunch of niggaz.”
“What are you saying?” Svetlana said.
“Don’t take it the wrong way,” Rouenna said. “I mean it like a compliment.”
“It’s no compliment!” Svetlana barked. “Explain yourself.”
“Chill, honey,” Rouenna said. “All I’m saying is, you know . . . your men don’t got no jobs, everyone’s always doing drive-bys whenever they got beefs, the childrens got asthma, and y’all live in public housing.”
“Misha doesn’t live in public housing,” Svetlana said. “I don’t live in public housing.”
“Yeah, but you’re different from the other peeps. You’re all like OGs,” Rouenna said, making a ghetto gesture with her arm.
“Original gangsters,” Alyosha-Bob explained.
“Look at Misha,” Rouenna said. “His father killed an American businessman over some bullshit, and now he can’t get a U.S. fucking visa. That’s, like, hard-core.”
“It’s not all because of Papa,” I whispered. “It’s the American consulate. It’s the State Department. They hate me.”
“Again, what it is ‘harcourt’?” Lyuba asked, unsure where the conversation was heading and whether or not she and Rouenna were still sisters.
Svetlana dropped her line and turned on me and Alyosha-Bob with both hands on her negligible waist. “It’s your fault,” she seethed in Russian. “With all of your stupid rapping. With that idiot ghetto tech. No wonder people treat us like we’re animals.”
“We were just having fun,” Alyosha-Bob said.
“If you want to be a Russian,” Svetlana told my friend, “you have to think of what kind of image you want to project. Everyone already thinks we’re bandits and whores. We’ve got to rebrand ourselves.”
“I apologize with all my soul,” Alyosha-Bob said, his hands symbolically covering his heart. “We will not rap in front of you from now on. We will work on our image.”
“Damn, what are you niggaz going on about?” Rouenna said. “Speak English already.”
Svetlana turned to me with her fierce off-color eyes. I stepped back, nearly tipping over into the Spawning Salmon waters. My fingers were already skirting Dr. Levine’s emergency speed dial when my manservant, Timofey, ran up to us in great haste, choking on his own sour breath. “Ai, batyushka,” my manservant said, pausing for air. “Forgive Timofey for the interruption, why don’t you? For he is a sinner just like the rest of them. But sir, I must warn you! The police are on their way. I fear they are looking for you—”
I didn’t quite catch his meaning until a baritone yelp from the neighboring Capricious Trout pontoon caught my attention. “Police!” a gentleman was braying. The young bank workers with their American MBAs, the old czarina in her black pearls and white gown, the Pushkin-loving biznesman—everyone was making for the complimentary valet parking where their Land Rovers were idling. Running past them were three wide gendarmes, their snazzy blue caps embossed with the scrawny two-headed Russian eagle, followed by their leader, an older man in civilian clothing, his hands in his pockets, taking his time.
It was apparent that the pigs were headed squarely for me. Alyosha-Bob moved in to protect me, placing his hands on my back and my belly as if I were in danger of capsizing. I decided to stand my ground. Such an outrage! In civilized countries like Canada, a well-heeled man and his fishing party are left in peace by the authorities, even if they have committed a crime. The old man in civvies, who I later learned had the tasty name of Belugin (just like the caviar), gently pushed aside my friend. He placed his snout within a centimeter of my own, so that I was looking into a grizzled old man’s face, eyes yellow around the pupils, a face that in Russia bespeaks authority and incompetence both. He was staring at me with great emotion, as if he wanted my money. “Misha Vainberg?” he said.
“And what of it?” I said. The implication being: Do you know who I am?
“Your papa has just been murdered on the Palace Bridge,” the policeman told me. “By a land mine. A German tourist filmed everything.”
From the Hardcover edition.