Russian Debutante's Handbook [NOOK Book]

Overview

The Russian Debutante's Handbook introduces Vladimir Girshkin, one of the most original and unlikely heroes of recent times. The twenty-five-year-old unhappy lover to a fat dungeon mistress, affectionately nicknamed "Little Failure" by his high-achieving mother, Vladimir toils his days away as a lowly clerk at the bureaucratic Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society. When a wealthy but psychotic old Russian war hero appears, Vladimir embarks on an adventure of unrelenting lunacy that takes us from New ...
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Russian Debutante's Handbook

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Overview

The Russian Debutante's Handbook introduces Vladimir Girshkin, one of the most original and unlikely heroes of recent times. The twenty-five-year-old unhappy lover to a fat dungeon mistress, affectionately nicknamed "Little Failure" by his high-achieving mother, Vladimir toils his days away as a lowly clerk at the bureaucratic Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society. When a wealthy but psychotic old Russian war hero appears, Vladimir embarks on an adventure of unrelenting lunacy that takes us from New York's Lower East Side to the hip frontier wilderness of Prava--the Eastern European Paris of the nineties. With the help of a murderous but fun-loving Russian mafioso, Vladimir infiltrates the Prava expat community and launches a scheme as ridiculous as it is brilliant.



Bursting with wit, humor, and rare insight, The Russian Debutante's Handbook is both a highly imaginative romp and a serious exploration of what it means to be an immigrant in America.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Gary Shteyngart's debut takes readers through the end of an era of exuberance and uncertainty, seen through the eyes of one of the most engaging protagonists in recent fiction. Vladimir Girshkin, the child of immigrant Soviet Jews, is prepared to spend the rest of his life at the bottom of the American socioeconomic heap. But when he becomes the recipient of the attentions of an uncomfortably rich girl, this perennial loser is sparked into a sudden, potentially disastrous quest for fame, fortune, and a new identity.

Shteyngart relentlessly trains his gimlet eye on the slackers, posers, and perennial adolescents of modern-day New York and the fictional eastern European city of Prava, the laid-back flip side of dot-com fever. But The Russian Debutante's Handbook doesn't actually deliver on the title's promise to lay out the rules for Vladimir to follow; watching our bumbling buffoon of a hero figure out that there seem to be no rules at all is the considerable pleasure this enchanting novel provides. (Summer 2002 Selection)

O. Magazine
[Gary Shteyngart's] sense of the exploded past and volatile present suffuses this gifted first novel...
Harper's Bazaar
A brilliant funny debut ...
Time Out New York
If Henry Miller were Russian,this is a book he might have written.
New York Times
[An] uproarious and highly entertaining story...
Elle
The rampaging narrative is festooned on every page with glitering one-liners,improbably apt similes and other miniature pleasures.
Washington Post
Gary Shteyngart ... has produced a sardonic,moving and ingeniously crafted update of earlier sagas of upward-struggling American newcomers.
O Magazine
... [a] tender and hilarious &eacuteemigré's romance.
Time Out New York
This picaresque debut...transcends its personal genesis to become an all-around great American story.
Vanity Fair
... a terrifically charming tale of a young Russian immigrant's capitalist and carnal aspirations.
Harper's Bazaar
A brilliant, funny debut describing the vicissitudes of immigration today, as experienced by the hero, a young Russian-American.
Kevin Greenberg
This moving and funny debut novel offers a fresh take on the oft-told story of the immigrant longing for an authentic sense of place. After a resolutely bumpy thirteen years in America, Vladimir Girshkin, the "enduring victim of every practical joke the late twentieth century had to offer," feels estranged from his adopted homeland, his dysfunctional parents and especially his girlfriend, whose "bright orange hair" lies "strewn across his Alphabet City hovel as if a cadre of Angora rabbits had visited." Sick of the daily toil of life in New York, Vladimir decides to move back to the Eastern bloc. The novel, which opens on Vladimir's twenty-fifth birthday, traces his travels from a Manhattan full of youth and new money to an Eastern European metropolis where his status as an immigrant is bizarrely mirrored in the legions of idealistic, easily duped Americans who have emigrated there. This is a complex and impressive work, full of humanistic touches and worldly humor.
Publishers Weekly

Four years after its initial publication, Shteyngart's debut novel makes its first appearance in an audio version. Strong gamely does his best to capture the antic rhythms of Shteyngart's irrepressible comic novel, but his reading lacks fluency, failing to emulate the book's dry, sardonic wit. More so than most novels, Shteyngart's book depends on the sound of language—immigrants' careful tap dance around a language not entirely their own. While it would perhaps have been too simplistic to have a Russian-sounding voice read this novel, the gamble of having a voice so clearly not Russian results in a competent but unenlightening reading that undersells its source material. Strong sounds too wholesomely American and too white bread to be protagonist Vladimir Girshkin. The result is a reading that lacks a true connection to Shteyngart's work. (Reviews, Apr. 29, 2002) (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
Failurchka Mother's Little Failure is what Vladimir Girshkin's overweening Russian immigrant mother calls her 25-year-old son at the beginning of this picaresque, episodic, and somewhat sprawling first novel. Vladimir is stuck in a dead-end job and saddled with girlfriend Challah, "queen of everything musky and mammal-like." Then through a series of chance encounters, he is catapulted to the eastern European city of "Prava" to find himself welcomed into the fold of powerful Mafiosi. Shteyngart introduces a large cast of exotic characters, mainly twentysomethings meandering from adventure to adventure. Yet this distinctive new voice, which is both richly ironic and often side-splittingly funny, still seems to be seeking the right register. The relentless humor and satire obscure the development of character that is necessary to make readers believe the cast is real and not just being staged. Moreover, one wonders why the author felt the need to (thinly) disguise Prague (Prava) with its river Tavlata (Vltava) and the 1969 (1968) Soviet invasion. Thus, his highly imaginative but at times maddening panorama comes to resemble a dazzling Potemkin village. Though this is not an experimental novel, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the author is still experimenting with a very large talent he's not entirely sure what to do with. But having gotten a taste, we will eagerly await his next offering, in which less just might be more. Recommended for all literary collections and larger public libraries. Edward Cone, New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
First-novelist Shteyngart casts a cold eye alike on Clinton-era aimlessness and free-enterprise excess in Eastern Europe. It's Vladimir Girshkin's 25th birthday in 1993, and his mother wastes no time reminding him that he's a disappointment. Since the family arrived in New York from the USSR 13 years before, she's become a successful businesswoman, while Dr. Girshkin adds to their coffers by defrauding Medicare. But Vladimir has dropped out of a progressive midwestern college to take a job at the Emma Lazarus Society helping new immigrants. One of them, the decidedly crazy Mr. Rybakov, wants to get Vladimir in touch with his son Groundhog, a mafioso operating in Prava, "the Paris of the '90s," an imaginary Eastern European city transformed by the collapse of communism into a mecca for criminals and novelty-seeking Americans. At first, Vladimir prefers to hang around the trendier sections of Manhattan, exchanging grad-student babble with the crowd gathered around girlfriend Francesca. But a misadventure in Miami with an amorous drug-dealer makes it advisable for him to get out of town, so Vladimir heads for Prava, where he persuades Groundhog to fund a Ponzi scheme based on getting American expatriates to invest in a literary magazine. Heavy drinking, observations about the void after communism, and a new girlfriend await Vladimir before his bamboozling comes to light and he must once again flee vengeful mafiosi. A sardonic but surprisingly moving epilogue finds him five years later in Cleveland, working at his father-in-law's insurance company, thinking wistfully of the days when he lived "foolishly, imperially, ecstatically" in the Wild West of Eastern Europe. Himself a Leningrad-bornAmerican citizen, Shteyngart mercilessly exposes the moral ambiguities of late-20th-century life under whatever form of government. Though slightly chilly toward its large cast of characters, the novel is redeemed by its thematic sweep and Vladimir's engaging brio. Ambitious, funny, intelligent, in love with irony and literary allusions, as if by a lighter Nabokov.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101218525
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 4/29/2003
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 97,556
  • File size: 461 KB

Meet the Author

Gary Shteyngart


Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972. This novel won the Stephen Crane First Fiction Award, was named a New York Times Notable Book, and was chosen as a best book of the year by The Washington Post Book World and Entertainmeny Weekly. His second novel, Absurdistan, was one of the New York Times' Best Books of 2006, and named a best book of the year by Time and The Washington Post. His third novel, Super Sad True Love Story was a New York Times Notable Book and named a best book of the year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many others. His most recent book, Little Failure, is a memoir hailed as "hilarious and moving" (New York Times) and "dazzling" (NPR). His work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, and other publications. He lives in New York City.


Biography

In the hilariously skewed world of Gary Shteyngart, reality and absurdity trot gleefully hand-in-hand. His debut novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, finds a Jewish/Soviet ne'er-do-well on a manic search for fortune and fame against the backdrops of New York City and the fictional European city of Prava. Absurdistan, Shteyngart's sophomore effort, ups the level of wackiness. The obese, gluttonous Misha Vainberg devours Western pop culture, lusts after a sultry Latina from the South Bronx, and stumbles into the position of Minister of Multicultural Affairs in the volatile, oil-rich nation of Absurdistan. While Shteyngart's wickedly whimsical prose and searing satire have been almost universally praised, he sees his work not as goofy flights of fancy but as a rather accurate vision of the contemporary global society.

"This is a reality book," Shteyngart declared to The Austinist, "and the reality is that we are becoming Absurdistan with each passing day. Look, you have a government that spies on its own citizens, is basically an oil kleptocracy, the government serves the oil interest, just the way it does in Russia."

Shteyngart's keen insights into world politics, particularly the current climate of America, are what elevate his novels above mere farce. Born in Leningrad, Russia, during the Cold War, but living the majority of his life in New York, the novelist has experienced life in the two contrasting nations that most influence his work. Along the way, he earned a degree in politics from Oberlin College in Ohio. Shteyngart is also a devoted traveler, and a stint in Prague sparked his first book. "I spent too much time in all these different places," he explained. "[W]hen I was in college, I really wanted to go back to Russia and my Mom, who was paying my bills at the time said, ‘Over my dead body, they'll eat you alive there. Look at you. You're a little Jew, they'll kill ya.' And I said ‘Uh, alright.' So I went to Prague with my girlfriend at the time and that became The Russian Debutante's [Handbook]."

The Russian Debutante's Handbook was greeted with a seemingly ceaseless string of laudatory reviews. From Vanity Fair to The New York Times to Book Magazine, Steyngart was regarded as a major new talent with a decidedly unique style. Because his debut was subject to so much acclaim, Steyngart felt that its success negatively affected the response to Absurdistan. "You know it's really interesting there are some people who love the first book...so much that they hate the second book because the tone is so different," he said. Of course, one would never know based on some of the most prominent responses to Absurdistan. The Washington Post celebrated the book's "sharp insights into the absurdity of the modern world," and Publisher's Weekly cheered that Misha Vainberg is a "sympathetic protagonist worthy of comparison to America's enduring literary heroes.'

Not to be deterred by a minority of naysayers, Shteyngart is already hard at work on his third novel, which features the tellingly named character Jerry Shteynfarb from Absurdistan. "[M]y next book [takes place] partly in Albany -- but set in the year 2040, when it's called All-Holy Albany Rensselaer," he told Forward, "and it's a small religious protectorate under the command of a Korean Rev. Cho. My hero, Jerry Shteynfarb, is 65 years old, married to one of Reverend Cho's daughters and trying to eke out a survival. That's going to be the next project."

Good To Know

What would Shteyngart be doing if he wasn't an acclaimed novelist? Well, he says he'd like to be an urban planner. One of his first jobs was as a janitor in a nuclear reactor.

Shteyngart began Absurdistan only a few days before 9/11, and briefly shelved the book after the tragic event.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      1972
    2. Place of Birth:
      Leningrad, USSR
    1. Education:
      B.A., Oberlin College, 1995

Read an Excerpt

PART I
NEW YORK,
1993

1. THE STORY OF VLADIMIR GIRSHKIN

THE STORY OF VLADIMIR GIRSHKIN-PART P. T. BARNUM, part V. I. Lenin, the man who would conquer half of Europe (albeit the wrong half)-begins the way so many other things begin. On a Monday morning. In an office. With the first cup of instant coffee gurgling to life in the common lounge.

His story begins in New York, on the corner of Broadway and Battery Place, the most disheveled, godforsaken, not-for-profit corner of New York's financial district. On the tenth floor, the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society greeted its clients with the familiar yellow water-stained walls and dying hydrangeas of a sad Third World government office. In the reception room, under the gentle but insistent prodding of trained Assimilation Facilitators, Turks and Kurds called a truce, Tutsis queued patiently behind Hutus, Serbs chatted up Croats by the demilitarized water fountain.

Meanwhile, in the cluttered back office, junior clerk Vladimir Girshkin-the immigrant's immigrant, the expatriate's expatriate, enduring victim of every practical joke the late twentieth century had to offer and an unlikely hero for our times-was going at it with the morning's first double-cured-spicy-soppressata-and-avocado sandwich. How Vladimir loved the unforgiving hardness of the soppressata and the fatty undertow of the tender avocado! The proliferation of this kind of Janus-faced sandwich, as far as he was concerned, was the best thing about Manhattan in the summer of 1993.

VLADIMIR WAS TWENTY-FIVE TODAY. He had lived in Russia for twelve years, and then there were the thirteen years spent here. That was his life-it added up. And now it was falling apart.

This would be the worst birthday of his life. Vladimir's best friend Baobab was down in Florida covering his rent, doing unspeakable things with unmentionable people. Mother, roused by the meager achievements of Vladimir's first quarter-century, was officially on the warpath. And, in possibly the worst development yet, 1993 was the Year of the Girlfriend. A downcast, heavyset American girlfriend whose bright orange hair was strewn across his Alphabet City hovel as if a cadre of Angora rabbits had visited. A girlfriend whose sickly-sweet incense and musky perfume coated Vladimir's unwashed skin, perhaps to remind him of what he could expect on this, the night of his birthday: Sex. Every week, once a week, they had to have sex, as both he and this large pale woman, this Challah, perceived that without weekly sex their relationship would fold up according to some unspecified law of relationships.

Yes, sex night with Challah. Challah with the bulging cheeks and determined radish of a nose, looking ever matronly and suburban, despite all the torn black shirts, gothic bracelets, and crucifixes that downtown Manhattan's goofiest shops managed to sell to her. Sex night-an offer Vladimir dared not refuse, given the prospect of waking up in a bed entirely empty; well, empty save for lonely Vladimir. How did that work again? You open your eyes, turn, and stare into the face of...the alarm clock. A busy and unforgiving face that, unlike a lover's, will say only "tick tock."

Suddenly, Vladimir heard the frenzied croaking of an elderly Russian out in the reception room: "Opa! Opa! Tovarisch Girshkin! Ai! Ai! Ai!"

The problem clients. They would come first thing Monday morning, having spent the weekend rehearsing their problems with their loathsome friends, practicing angry postures in front of the bathroom mirrors of their Brighton Beach studios.

It was time to act. Vladimir braced himself against the desk and stood up. All alone in the back office, with no point of reference other than the kindergarten-sized chairs and desks that comprised the furniture, he suddenly felt himself remarkably tall. A twenty-five-year-old man in an oxford shirt gone yellow under the armpits, frayed slacks with the cuffs coming comically undone, and wing tips that bore the black traces of a house fire, he dwarfed his surroundings like the lone skyscraper they built in Queens, right across the East River. But it wasn't true: Vladimir was short.

In the reception room, Vladimir found the bantam security guard from Lima pinioned against the wall. A chunky old Russian gent sporting the traditional flea market attire and six-dollar crew cut had trapped the poor fellow with his crutches and was now slowly leaning in on his prey, trying to bite him with his silver teeth. Alas, at the first hint of internecine violence, the native-born Assimilation Facilitators had ignobly fled the scene, leaving behind their Harlem, U.S.A., coffee mugs and Brooklyn Museum tote bags. Only junior clerk Vladimir Girshkin remained to assimilate the masses. "Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!" he shouted to the Russian. "We never do that to the guard."

The madman turned to face him. "Girshkin!" he sputtered. "It's you!" He pushed himself away from the guard in one remarkable motion and started limping toward Vladimir. He was a man of small stature, made smaller by a weighty green rucksack bearing down on him. One side of his azure guayabera shirt was filled bosom to navel with Soviet war medals, and their weight pulled down one collar, exposing a veined lump of neck.

"What do you want from me?" Vladimir said.

"What do I want from you?" the Russian shouted. "My God, what haughtiness!" A shaking crutch was quickly lifted into place between them. The lunatic executed a practice jab: On guard!

"I spoke to you on the phone last month," the crutch-bearer complained. "You sounded very cultured on the phone, remember?"

Cultured, yes. That would be him. Vladimir examined the man who was killing his morning. He had a broad Slavic (as opposed to Jewish) face, with a web of creases so deep they could have been carved with a pocketknife. Bushy Brezhnevian eyebrows were overtaking his forehead. A small island of hair, still blond, was moored at the geographical center of his pate. "We spoke, heh?" Vladimir said, in the devil-may-care tone of Soviet officialdom. He was a big fan of the syllable "heh."

"Oh, yes!" the old man enthused.

"And what did I say to you, heh?"

"You said to come over. Miss Harosset said to come over. The fan said to come over. So I took the number five train to Bowling Green like you said." He looked pleased with himself.

Vladimir took a tentative step back toward his office. The guard was settling back on his perch, rebuttoning his shirt, and mumbling something in his language. Still, something was amiss. Let's tally up: angry Slav; cowering security guard; low-paying, absurdist job; misspent youth; sex night with Challah. Oh, yes. "What's this fan?" Vladimir asked.

"It's the one in my bedroom," the fellow said, smirking at a question so obvious. "I have two fans."

"The fan said to come over," Vladimir said. And he has two fans. Right then, on the spot, Vladimir recognized that this wasn't a problem client. This was a fun client. A loop-de-loop client. The kind of client that turned on your morning switch and kept you brisk and agitated all day. "Listen," Vladimir said to this Fan Man, "Why don't we step into my office and you tell me everything."

"Bravo, young one!" The Fan Man gave a victory salute to his erstwhile victim the security guard. He limped into the back office, where he lowered himself onto one of the cold plastic chairs. Painfully, he removed the green beast of a rucksack.

"So, what's your name? We'll start with that."

"Rybakov," said the Fan Man. "Aleksander. Or just Aleks."

"Please...Tell me about yourself. If you're comfortable-"

"I'm psychotic," Rybakov said. His enormous eyebrows twitched in confirmation, and he smiled with false modesty, like a kid who brings in his father the astronaut on career day.

"Psychotic!" Vladimir said. He tried to look encouraging. It was not uncommon for the mad Russians to give him their diagnosis right off the bat; some treated it almost like a profession or a calling in life. "And you've been diagnosed?"

"By many people. I'm under observation as we speak," said Mr. Rybakov, peering under Vladimir's desk. "Look, I even wrote a letter to the president in the New York Times."

He produced a crumpled piece of paper reeking of alcohol, tea, and his own wet palm. "Dear Mr. President," read Vladimir. "I am a retired Russian sailor, a proud combatant against the Nazi terror in the Second World War and a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. I have lived in your wonderful country for more than five years and have received much moral and financial support from the warm and highly sexed American people (in particular, my thoughts alight on the women skating around Central Park with just a bit of cloth wrapped around their breasts). Back in Russia, senior citizens with mental disabilities are kept in dilapidated hospitals and humiliated on a daily basis by young hooligans who have scarcely heard of the Great Patriotic War and have no sympathy for their elders who fought tooth and nail to keep out the murderous Krauts. In America, I am able to lead a full, satisfactory life. I select and purchase groceries at the Sloan's supermarket on Eighty-ninth Street and Lexington. I watch television, specifically the show about the comical black midget on channel five. And I help defend America by investing part of my social security income into companies such as Martin Marietta and United Technologies. Soon I will become a citizen of this great nation and will be able to choose my leaders (not like in Russia). So I wish you, Mr. President, and your desirable American wife and developing young daughter, a very healthy, happy New Year. Respectfully, Aleksander Rybakov."

"Your English is impeccable."

"Oh, I can't take credit for that," the Fan Man said. "That was Miss Harosset's translation. She was faithful to the original, you can believe me. She wanted to put 'German' instead of 'Kraut,' but I insisted. You have to write what you feel inside, I told her."

"And the New York Times actually published this letter?" Vladimir asked.

"Those cretinous editors crossed out half my words," Mr. Rybakov said, shaking a symbolic pen at Vladimir. "It's American censorship, my friend. You don't blot out the words of a poet! Well, I've instructed Miss Harosset to commence a lawsuit on this matter as well. Her little sister is thrashing around with an important state prosecutor, so I think we're in good hands."

Miss Harosset. That must be his social worker. Vladimir looked down at the blank form on which he should have been jotting down information. A rich and particular psychosis was taking shape before him, threatening to upset the meager line allotted for "client's mental state." He grew restless, attributing it to the coffee settling within his abdomen, and started tapping out "The Internationale" on his metal desk, a nervous habit inherited from his father. Outside the nonexistent windows of the back office, the canyons of the financial district were awash with rationalism and dull commercial hope: suburban secretaries explored bargains on cosmetics and hose; Ivy Leaguers swallowed entire pieces of yellowtail in one satisfied gulp. But here it was just Vladimir the twenty-five-year-old and the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Vladimir looked up from his thoughts-his client was wheezing and sputtering like an overtaxed radiator. "Look, Rybakov," he said. "You are a model immigrant. You collect Social Security. You publish in the Times. What can I possibly do for you?"

"The crooks!" Rybakov shouted, grabbing once again for his crutch. "The awful crooks! They won't give me my citizenship! They've read the letter in the Times. And they know about the fan. They know about both fans. You know how some summer nights the blades get a little rusty and you have to grease them with corn oil? So they've heard the trikka trikka and the krik krak, and they're scared! An old invalid, they're scared of! There are cowards in every country, even in New York."

"That's true enough," Vladimir agreed. "But I think what you need, Mr. Rybakov, is an immigration lawyer...For unfortunately, I am not..."

"Oh, I know who you are, little goose," Mr. Rybakov said.

"Pardon?" Vladimir said. The last time he had been called "little goose" was twenty years ago, when he was, indeed, a diminutive, unsteady creature, his head covered with a smattering of golden down.

"The Fan sang an epic song for me the other night," said Rybakov. "It was called 'The Tale of Vladimir Girshkin and Yelena Petrovna, His Mama.'"

"Mother," Vladimir whispered. He didn't know what else to say. That word, when spoken in the company of Russian men, was sacred in itself. "You know my mother?"

"We haven't had the pleasure of being formally introduced," Rybakov said. "But I read about her in the business section of the New Russian Word. What a Jewess! The pride of your people. A capitalist she-wolf. Scourge of the hedge funds. Ruthless czarina. Oh, my dear, dear Yelena Petrovna. And here I am chatting with her son! Surely he knows the right people, fellow Hebrews perhaps, among the dastardly agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service."

Vladimir scrunched up his hairy upper lip so as to smell its animal fragrance-a soothing pastime. "But you're mistaken," he said. "There is nothing I can do for you. I lack Mother's cunning, I have no friends in the INS...I have no friends anywhere. The apple has fallen far from the apple tree, as they say. Mother may be a she-wolf, but look at me..." Vladimir gestured expansively at the deprivation around him.

Just then the double doors opened, and, twenty minutes late for work, the Chinese and Haitian women-Vladimir's fellow junior clerks in the back office-walked in from the streets, laden with buttered rolls and coffee. They retreated behind the desks labeled china and haiti, tucking in their long, gauzy summer skirts. When Vladimir's gaze returned to his client, ten hundred-dollar bills, ten portraits of purse-lipped Benjamin Franklin, were unfurled on the table to form a paper fan.

"Ai!" Vladimir cried. Instinctively, he grabbed the hard currency and deposited it inside his shirt pocket. He glanced at his international colleagues. Oblivious of the crime just committed, they were stuffing themselves with morning rolls, bantering about recipes for Haitian crackers and how to know if a man was decent. "Mr. Rybakov!" Vladimir whispered. "What are you doing? You cannot give me money. This is not Russia!"

"Everywhere is Russia," said Mr. Rybakov philosophically. "Everywhere you go...Russia."

"Now I want you to place your upturned palm on the table," Vladimir instructed. "I will quickly throw the money in there, you put the money in your wallet, and we shall consider this matter closed."

"I would prefer not to," said Aleksander Rybakov, the Soviet Bartleby. "Look," he said. "Here's what we'll do. Come on over to my house. We'll talk. The Fan likes his tea early on Mondays. Oh, and we'll have Jack Daniel's, and beluga, and luscious sturgeon, too. I live on Eighty-seventh Street, right next to the Guggenheim Museum, that eyesore. But it's a nice penthouse, views of the park, a Sub-Zero refrigerator...A lot more civilized than this place, you'll see...Forget about your duties here. Helping Equadorians move to America, it's a pointless task. Come, let's be friends!"

"You live on the Upper East Side...?" Vladimir babbled. "A penthouse? On Social Security? But how can it be?" He had the dizzy impression that the room had begun to sway. The only enjoyment Vladimir derived from his job was encountering foreigners even more flummoxed by American society than he was. But today this simple pleasure was proving highly elusive. "Where did you get the money?" Vladimir demanded of his client. "Who bought you this zero refrigerator?"

The Fan Man reached over and pinched Vladimir's nose between thumb and forefinger, a familiar Russian gesture reserved for small children. "I'm psychotic," the Fan Man explained. "But I'm no idiot."

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First Chapter

PART I
NEW YORK,
1993

1. THE STORY OF VLADIMIR GIRSHKIN

The story of Vladimir Girshkin-part P. T. Barnum, part V. I. Lenin, the man who would conquer half of Europe (albeit the wrong half)-begins the way so many other things begin. On a Monday morning. In an office. With the first cup of instant coffee gurgling to life in the common lounge.

His story begins in New York, on the corner of Broadway and Battery Place, the most disheveled, godforsaken, not-for-profit corner of New York's financial district. On the tenth floor, the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society greeted its clients with the familiar yellow water-stained walls and dying hydrangeas of a sad Third World government office. In the reception room, under the gentle but insistent prodding of trained Assimilation Facilitators, Turks and Kurds called a truce, Tutsis queued patiently behind Hutus, Serbs chatted up Croats by the demilitarized water fountain.

Meanwhile, in the cluttered back office, junior clerk Vladimir Girshkin-the immigrant's immigrant, the expatriate's expatriate, enduring victim of every practical joke the late twentieth century had to offer and an unlikely hero for our times-was going at it with the morning's first double-cured-spicy-soppressata-and-avocado sandwich. How Vladimir loved the unforgiving hardness of the soppressata and the fatty undertow of the tender avocado! The proliferation of this kind of Janus-faced sandwich, as far as he was concerned, was the best thing about Manhattan in the summer of 1993.

Vladimir was twenty-five today. He had lived in Russia for twelve years, and then there were the thirteen years spent here. That was his life-it added up. And now it was falling apart.

This would be the worst birthday of his life. Vladimir's best friend Baobab was down in Florida covering his rent, doing unspeakable things with unmentionable people. Mother, roused by the meager achievements of Vladimir's first quarter-century, was officially on the warpath. And, in possibly the worst development yet, 1993 was the Year of the Girlfriend. A downcast, heavyset American girlfriend whose bright orange hair was strewn across his Alphabet City hovel as if a cadre of Angora rabbits had visited. A girlfriend whose sickly-sweet incense and musky perfume coated Vladimir's unwashed skin, perhaps to remind him of what he could expect on this, the night of his birthday: Sex. Every week, once a week, they had to have sex, as both he and this large pale woman, this Challah, perceived that without weekly sex their relationship would fold up according to some unspecified law of relationships.

Yes, sex night with Challah. Challah with the bulging cheeks and determined radish of a nose, looking ever matronly and suburban, despite all the torn black shirts, gothic bracelets, and crucifixes that downtown Manhattan's goofiest shops managed to sell to her. Sex night-an offer Vladimir dared not refuse, given the prospect of waking up in a bed entirely empty; well, empty save for lonely Vladimir. How did that work again? You open your eyes, turn, and stare into the face of...the alarm clock. A busy and unforgiving face that, unlike a lover's, will say only "tick tock."

Suddenly, Vladimir heard the frenzied croaking of an elderly Russian out in the reception room: "Opa! Opa! Tovarisch Girshkin! Ai! Ai! Ai!"

The problem clients. They would come first thing Monday morning, having spent the weekend rehearsing their problems with their loathsome friends, practicing angry postures in front of the bathroom mirrors of their Brighton Beach studios.

It was time to act. Vladimir braced himself against the desk and stood up. All alone in the back office, with no point of reference other than the kindergarten-sized chairs and desks that comprised the furniture, he suddenly felt himself remarkably tall. A twenty-five-year-old man in an oxford shirt gone yellow under the armpits, frayed slacks with the cuffs coming comically undone, and wing tips that bore the black traces of a house fire, he dwarfed his surroundings like the lone skyscraper they built in Queens, right across the East River. But it wasn't true: Vladimir was short.

In the reception room, Vladimir found the bantam security guard from Lima pinioned against the wall. A chunky old Russian gent sporting the traditional flea market attire and six-dollar crew cut had trapped the poor fellow with his crutches and was now slowly leaning in on his prey, trying to bite him with his silver teeth. Alas, at the first hint of internecine violence, the native-born Assimilation Facilitators had ignobly fled the scene, leaving behind their Harlem, U.S.A., coffee mugs and Brooklyn Museum tote bags. Only junior clerk Vladimir Girshkin remained to assimilate the masses. "Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!" he shouted to the Russian. "We never do that to the guard."

The madman turned to face him. "Girshkin!" he sputtered. "It's you!" He pushed himself away from the guard in one remarkable motion and started limping toward Vladimir. He was a man of small stature, made smaller by a weighty green rucksack bearing down on him. One side of his azure guayabera shirt was filled bosom to navel with Soviet war medals, and their weight pulled down one collar, exposing a veined lump of neck.

"What do you want from me?" Vladimir said.

"What do I want from you?" the Russian shouted. "My God, what haughtiness!" A shaking crutch was quickly lifted into place between them. The lunatic executed a practice jab: On guard!

"I spoke to you on the phone last month," the crutch-bearer complained. "You sounded very cultured on the phone, remember?"

Cultured, yes. That would be him. Vladimir examined the man who was killing his morning. He had a broad Slavic (as opposed to Jewish) face, with a web of creases so deep they could have been carved with a pocketknife. Bushy Brezhnevian eyebrows were overtaking his forehead. A small island of hair, still blond, was moored at the geographical center of his pate. "We spoke, heh?" Vladimir said, in the devil-may-care tone of Soviet officialdom. He was a big fan of the syllable "heh."

"Oh, yes!" the old man enthused.

"And what did I say to you, heh?"

"You said to come over. Miss Harosset said to come over. The fan said to come over. So I took the number five train to Bowling Green like you said." He looked pleased with himself.

Vladimir took a tentative step back toward his office. The guard was settling back on his perch, rebuttoning his shirt, and mumbling something in his language. Still, something was amiss. Let's tally up: angry Slav; cowering security guard; low-paying, absurdist job; misspent youth; sex night with Challah. Oh, yes. "What's this fan?" Vladimir asked.

"It's the one in my bedroom," the fellow said, smirking at a question so obvious. "I have two fans."

"The fan said to come over," Vladimir said. And he has two fans. Right then, on the spot, Vladimir recognized that this wasn't a problem client. This was a fun client. A loop-de-loop client. The kind of client that turned on your morning switch and kept you brisk and agitated all day. "Listen," Vladimir said to this Fan Man, "Why don't we step into my office and you tell me everything."

"Bravo, young one!" The Fan Man gave a victory salute to his erstwhile victim the security guard. He limped into the back office, where he lowered himself onto one of the cold plastic chairs. Painfully, he removed the green beast of a rucksack.

"So, what's your name? We'll start with that."

"Rybakov," said the Fan Man. "Aleksander. Or just Aleks."

"Please...Tell me about yourself. If you're comfortable-"

"I'm psychotic," Rybakov said. His enormous eyebrows twitched in confirmation, and he smiled with false modesty, like a kid who brings in his father the astronaut on career day.

"Psychotic!" Vladimir said. He tried to look encouraging. It was not uncommon for the mad Russians to give him their diagnosis right off the bat; some treated it almost like a profession or a calling in life. "And you've been diagnosed?"

"By many people. I'm under observation as we speak," said Mr. Rybakov, peering under Vladimir's desk. "Look, I even wrote a letter to the president in the New York Times."

He produced a crumpled piece of paper reeking of alcohol, tea, and his own wet palm. "Dear Mr. President," read Vladimir. "I am a retired Russian sailor, a proud combatant against the Nazi terror in the Second World War and a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. I have lived in your wonderful country for more than five years and have received much moral and financial support from the warm and highly sexed American people (in particular, my thoughts alight on the women skating around Central Park with just a bit of cloth wrapped around their breasts). Back in Russia, senior citizens with mental disabilities are kept in dilapidated hospitals and humiliated on a daily basis by young hooligans who have scarcely heard of the Great Patriotic War and have no sympathy for their elders who fought tooth and nail to keep out the murderous Krauts. In America, I am able to lead a full, satisfactory life. I select and purchase groceries at the Sloan's supermarket on Eighty-ninth Street and Lexington. I watch television, specifically the show about the comical black midget on channel five. And I help defend America by investing part of my social security income into companies such as Martin Marietta and United Technologies. Soon I will become a citizen of this great nation and will be able to choose my leaders (not like in Russia). So I wish you, Mr. President, and your desirable American wife and developing young daughter, a very healthy, happy New Year. Respectfully, Aleksander Rybakov."

"Your English is impeccable."

"Oh, I can't take credit for that," the Fan Man said. "That was Miss Harosset's translation. She was faithful to the original, you can believe me. She wanted to put 'German' instead of 'Kraut,' but I insisted. You have to write what you feel inside, I told her."

"And the New York Times actually published this letter?" Vladimir asked.

"Those cretinous editors crossed out half my words," Mr. Rybakov said, shaking a symbolic pen at Vladimir. "It's American censorship, my friend. You don't blot out the words of a poet! Well, I've instructed Miss Harosset to commence a lawsuit on this matter as well. Her little sister is thrashing around with an important state prosecutor, so I think we're in good hands."

Miss Harosset. That must be his social worker. Vladimir looked down at the blank form on which he should have been jotting down information. A rich and particular psychosis was taking shape before him, threatening to upset the meager line allotted for "client's mental state." He grew restless, attributing it to the coffee settling within his abdomen, and started tapping out "The Internationale" on his metal desk, a nervous habit inherited from his father. Outside the nonexistent windows of the back office, the canyons of the financial district were awash with rationalism and dull commercial hope: suburban secretaries explored bargains on cosmetics and hose; Ivy Leaguers swallowed entire pieces of yellowtail in one satisfied gulp. But here it was just Vladimir the twenty-five-year-old and the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Vladimir looked up from his thoughts-his client was wheezing and sputtering like an overtaxed radiator. "Look, Rybakov," he said. "You are a model immigrant. You collect Social Security. You publish in the Times. What can I possibly do for you?"

"The crooks!" Rybakov shouted, grabbing once again for his crutch. "The awful crooks! They won't give me my citizenship! They've read the letter in the Times. And they know about the fan. They know about both fans. You know how some summer nights the blades get a little rusty and you have to grease them with corn oil? So they've heard the trikka trikka and the krik krak, and they're scared! An old invalid, they're scared of! There are cowards in every country, even in New York."

"That's true enough," Vladimir agreed. "But I think what you need, Mr. Rybakov, is an immigration lawyer...For unfortunately, I am not..."

"Oh, I know who you are, little goose," Mr. Rybakov said.

"Pardon?" Vladimir said. The last time he had been called "little goose" was twenty years ago, when he was, indeed, a diminutive, unsteady creature, his head covered with a smattering of golden down.

"The Fan sang an epic song for me the other night," said Rybakov. "It was called 'The Tale of Vladimir Girshkin and Yelena Petrovna, His Mama.'"

"Mother," Vladimir whispered. He didn't know what else to say. That word, when spoken in the company of Russian men, was sacred in itself. "You know my mother?"

"We haven't had the pleasure of being formally introduced," Rybakov said. "But I read about her in the business section of the New Russian Word. What a Jewess! The pride of your people. A capitalist she-wolf. Scourge of the hedge funds. Ruthless czarina. Oh, my dear, dear Yelena Petrovna. And here I am chatting with her son! Surely he knows the right people, fellow Hebrews perhaps, among the dastardly agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service."

Vladimir scrunched up his hairy upper lip so as to smell its animal fragrance-a soothing pastime. "But you're mistaken," he said. "There is nothing I can do for you. I lack Mother's cunning, I have no friends in the INS...I have no friends anywhere. The apple has fallen far from the apple tree, as they say. Mother may be a she-wolf, but look at me..." Vladimir gestured expansively at the deprivation around him.

Just then the double doors opened, and, twenty minutes late for work, the Chinese and Haitian women-Vladimir's fellow junior clerks in the back office-walked in from the streets, laden with buttered rolls and coffee. They retreated behind the desks labeled china and haiti, tucking in their long, gauzy summer skirts. When Vladimir's gaze returned to his client, ten hundred-dollar bills, ten portraits of purse-lipped Benjamin Franklin, were unfurled on the table to form a paper fan.

"Ai!" Vladimir cried. Instinctively, he grabbed the hard currency and deposited it inside his shirt pocket. He glanced at his international colleagues. Oblivious of the crime just committed, they were stuffing themselves with morning rolls, bantering about recipes for Haitian crackers and how to know if a man was decent. "Mr. Rybakov!" Vladimir whispered. "What are you doing? You cannot give me money. This is not Russia!"

"Everywhere is Russia," said Mr. Rybakov philosophically. "Everywhere you go...Russia."

"Now I want you to place your upturned palm on the table," Vladimir instructed. "I will quickly throw the money in there, you put the money in your wallet, and we shall consider this matter closed."

"I would prefer not to," said Aleksander Rybakov, the Soviet Bartleby. "Look," he said. "Here's what we'll do. Come on over to my house. We'll talk. The Fan likes his tea early on Mondays. Oh, and we'll have Jack Daniel's, and beluga, and luscious sturgeon, too. I live on Eighty-seventh Street, right next to the Guggenheim Museum, that eyesore. But it's a nice penthouse, views of the park, a Sub-Zero refrigerator...A lot more civilized than this place, you'll see...Forget about your duties here. Helping Equadorians move to America, it's a pointless task. Come, let's be friends!"

"You live on the Upper East Side...?" Vladimir babbled. "A penthouse? On Social Security? But how can it be?" He had the dizzy impression that the room had begun to sway. The only enjoyment Vladimir derived from his job was encountering foreigners even more flummoxed by American society than he was. But today this simple pleasure was proving highly elusive. "Where did you get the money?" Vladimir demanded of his client. "Who bought you this zero refrigerator?"

The Fan Man reached over and pinched Vladimir's nose between thumb and forefinger, a familiar Russian gesture reserved for small children. "I'm psychotic," the Fan Man explained. "But I'm no idiot."

--from The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart, Copyright © June 2002, Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.

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Reading Group Guide

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Assimilation is a major theme in The Russian Debutante's Handbook. Discuss Vladimir's various attempts to assimilate. Which one is most successful and why?

Vladimir retains a distinct self-identification as a poor Russian Jew, despite his mother's success in America and the many opportunities available to him as an American citizen. Discuss his ennui as a manifestation of successful Americanization.

Rybakov is also attempting to assimilate in his way. Discuss the humor inherant in the Fan Man's chief impetus toward citizenship being the legitimization of his opinions.

How does Vladimir's mother's intense desire for her son's success backfire? Why does her pressure on him to assimilate also backfire?

Vladimir doesn't seem to care much about money in his days at the Emma Lazarus Society. How does his affair with Frannie change that? What is the newfound appeal of material success?

Vladimir shows himself to be remarkably adaptable. What is the crucial difference between adaptation and assimilation?

History is an important character in this novel. How does it differently effect the lives of Rybakov? Kostya? Perry Cohen?

How is the destruction of the Foot symbolic of both Prava's escape from history and Vladimir's?

What does Vladimir learn about appearances from Morgan? Discuss the irony of this All-American girl's desire to immerse herself in Prava and its politics, and flee the bland , affluent normalcy so many immigrants seek.

Do you believe that Vladimir has assimilated at the end--that his life in Cleveland as an accountant with a wife and baby on the way has finally Americanized him? Or does Vladimir's nostalgia for his past status as an outcast reveal something more complex about the makeup of our souls?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 27 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 27 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2003

    Spongebob Squarepanovich

    As a genre, the immigrant novel has seen many distinguished graduates but it has never run across a citizen like Vladimir Girshkin. This book should be called the misadventures of Spongebob Squarepanovich. It is a laugh-a-riot smash whose plot bounces along with the hyperactive energy of a cartoon. Our hero seeks to soak up the approval of skeptical women, attempts to turn a Russian mobster's organization into an American Rotary Club, and in his spare time tries to fleece expatriates with a lame Ponzi scheme. The whole contraption collapses in a spectacular, James bondish flame-out, and our bumbling hero comes back home, like the prodigal son in the archetypal dragonslayer story, to his demanding Jewish moma. Each line of dialogue is an instant gut grab laugher. The characters will stick to your mind like east european Velcro. And the many improbable scenes are lined up like practice targets in a funnybone shooting gallery. The final score is: bull's eye, each and every one! Fresh off the boat, yes. ... but you sure deserve membership in the American comic classic club!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2005

    Great Book!

    This is by far one of my favorite books! People who don't like this are probably looking for something more 'see spot run'...the story is smart and hilarious. I'd say Vladimir's adventures are more probable than the average American might imagine. Looking forward to more wonderful reads from this author.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2002

    Russian Debutante's Handbook

    The transformation of main character is very nice. An immigration clerk who seems fairly unambitious becomes a major player in Eastern European mob is a great tale. I was interested to continue reading, but not captivated. Maybe I thought the turn-around or about face was a bit too extreme, but I guess it is fiction and it is still a good story. All in all, very fast read, good character developement, a great deal of action, especially in the second half of the book. I am definately going to pass my copy along to a friend.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2011

    Pretty, Pretty, Pretty good!

    I did enjoy this book. The characters were real and you did see growth. However, sometimes it seemed like there was too much writing, not enough going on. The character growth was evident and funny, very very funny. As a Caribbean-American, it gave me insight to another world of immigration.

    The Best part about the book was his descriptive attention to detail which seemlessly created a vivid visual.

    The Worst part was sometimes the description went too far and it distracted from the task he was trying to complete.

    Overall, fun read! Recommend it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2003

    Interesting but...

    It was definitely interesting all the escapades Vladimir gets himself into but it was definitely improbable. And the thing w/ Lenin's foot in the end was not needed in the storyline.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2003

    improbably funny

    This is the funniest first novel I've read in years. Maybe ever. I've been reading paragraphs aloud for days, and nobody's complained yet. It's impredictable and versatile; the humor alternates between really sly asides and broad knee-slappers--and, of course, this is a deeply felt novel too. There's a certain sort of sympathetic soul to the whole piece as well, that makes almost every joke feel as if it's been earned. Don't miss this one.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2002

    A great read

    This is a great, funny read, especially for fellow Russian Jews.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2002

    Russian Debutante's Handbook

    The story is a good pace and the changes are exciting (maybe not always fully believable). The character development is good and metamorphosis of the character from an immigration clerk to Eastern European con artist/ mobster is very good. It was a good read, kept me entertained and turning the pages. Although it was not completely engrossing, I recommend it and will pass it along to a friend and will probably read the next book by the author if there is one.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2002

    You must read this wonderful novel.

    I really enjoyed reading this novel. It is dark, yet at the same time funny and exciting. I really loved the parts in which Shteyngart makes references to life in the former Soviet Union (ex. 'babushkas' and 'Road 66'). I especially enjoyed reading about Vladimir's entire journey from New York City to Prava. Though the novel is in the first person p.o.v., Shteyngart develops his characters very well. This book is definitely a page-turner.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2005

    Honestly...the worst book I've ever read

    This book can be described in one word: PAINFUL. Please, take my advice, and save your time. I would rather spend my time reading the entire English dictionary 10 times before I would read this book again.

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2003

    HATED IT!

    Our small book club read this, looking for a little humor -- and we all found NONE. Not one of us liked it and most of us couldn't even finish it... A huge disappointment, given the reviews. Don't waste your money.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted March 9, 2011

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