OK, OK, I know we’re not supposed to laugh at fat people, sexual dysfunction, anti- Semitism, gold-digging strippers, corrupt former Soviet oil states, and ethnic cleansing on the shores of the Caspian Sea. On the other hand, one might reasonably ask, how else are we supposed to respond to such a mess? In this baggy, enjoyable picaresque—an ideal beach read for Exxon and Halliburton workers in Baku?—Gary Shteyngart is undeniably traveling some of the same ground from his 2002 The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, whose hero, Vladimir Grishkin, is name-checked by Absurdistan protagonist Misha Vainberg, a fellow ex-Russian Jew also educated at Accidental College, located somewhere in the American Midwest.
Liberally educated enough to dub himself “Gargantua” (he also goes by the nom de rap “Snack Daddy”), Misha is a Rabelaisian figure, excessive in appetite and paunch beneath his vintage Puma track suits, funded by the fortune of his Russian gangster father, fond of his Hispanic stripper-turned-college-student girlfriend. And, like a lot of people who have it all, he also carries an excess of neuroses—leading to Ativan benders and many phone calls back to his shrink in New York, since Misha is miserably trapped in his homeland, forbidden to travel after his father killed an American businessman.
Motherless and nostalgic, Misha pines for the good old days. (“Remember, Papa, how we used to trap the neighbor’s anti-Semitic dog in a milk crate and take turns peeing on it?”) He also desperately misses N.Y.C., whose streets he traverses in dreams; to get one girl hot, he recites East Village restaurant reviews from memory. Absurdistan is the sort of book where the hero must lose everything; and though comic in tone, that theme of loss is echoed in the broken-down squalor Misha encounters everywhere in his flight through the former U.S.S.R. (Seeking to escape Russia on a Belgian passport, he flies south to the petro state of Absurdistan, sort of like Azerbaijan, riven by two indistinguishable ethnic factions.)
It’s all very Duck Soup, until the plot turns more toward Hotel Rwanda, when the Sevo start killing the Svanï. Or is it the other way around? We’re as confused as poor Misha by the politics and intrigue. Absurdistan includes a few omens of 9/11 (the book’s set in 2001) and even tosses in a reference to Cheney, although this debutante doesn’t seem to be attempting grown-up satire. Shteyngart nods to Evelyn Waugh, a more acidic and concentrated writer, but he’s sprawling and generous, so funny you don’t really mind if Absurdistan tails off without much of a conclusion. If anything, it makes you want to read more about Misha, if and when he finally reaches his beloved Manhattan, and about Debutante‘s Grishkin, and even about a classmate of theirs, the disreputable writer Jerry Shteynfarb (whom Misha has reason to hate). If those three should ever meet in the same restaurant, the events in war-torn Absurdistan will seem tame by comparison.