Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier
Edited by Boris Fishman
The New Yorker
This timely anthology delivers on the promise of its title with rowdy, vodka-soaked tales of people run amok in the ruins of the Soviet empire. The writers-both natives of the Eastern bloc and Western travellers-plumb the cynicism and the hopes of places where a straitlaced missionary may quickly end up in “three fistfights, two of them with children,” and a melancholy financier dodges assassins between snorts of cocaine. Vodka is ubiquitous, and one story, a Gogolesque fable, involves a small-town mayor transformed into a vodka bottle that gradually makes the rounds of his corrupt advisers. These stories and reports cut very fine the distinction between black humor and despair; like the young Ukrainian American who journeys to Kiev to find himself, you are left captivated by the hardship and the fervor, “the musty smell of a lived life.”
The former Soviet bloc countries are the source of a recent surge of literary talent, which is ably harnessed in this collection of 12 impressive, penetrating stories. Fishman, a Belarus native and New Yorker staffer, has selected stories of uniformly excellent quality, paying testament to the rich fictional reserves of countries where residents “sigh in appreciation for what was lost and what remained.” The authors represented include natives of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union writing in English (Gary Shteyngart, Aleksandar Hemon) or appearing in translation (Miljenko Jergovic, Vladimir Sorokin) and Westerners with an abiding interest in the region (Arthur Phillips, Paul Greenberg). Although the pieces differ greatly, some common themes emerge, among them corruption, foreign identity and drinking – lots of it. Some of the pieces, like Sorokin’s “Hiroshima,” venture into the absurd; all, however, are steeped in a gritty realism, giving the impression that they are not fiction but real accounts dealing with actual lives. Tom Bissell’s “The Ambassador’s Son” presents a striking portrait of an elite American living in “one of the Central Asian republics you’ve never heard of,” living a wild life and managing to avoid paying the consequences. Similarly, “Gika” by Wendell Steavenson explores the sharp contrasts that exist in so many post-Communist countries, juxtaposing the lives of a beggar boy in Georgia, who goes barefoot when he begs to elicit more sympathy, and a moneyed narrator. Set everywhere from Russia to the Balkans, these stories transcend their locales, capturing the charged, chaotic aftermath of social and political breakdown.
Americans can learn a lot from Eastern Europe, which editor Fishman wryly terms the “Wild East” in his smart and stinging introduction to this altogether peppery collection of short stories by writers either from or well traveled in this rapidly changing region. An immigrant from Minsk, Belarus, Fishman, currently on the staff of the New Yorker, believes that Eastern Europe’s recent emergence from tyrannical rule is keenly relevant to events in Afghanistan and Iraq and that incisive fiction offers the best portal into the psychological, moral, and spiritual conundrums of people caught up in the chaos attendant upon the end of totalitarianism and the confusing infusion of democratic and capitalist imperatives. Fishman has selected a dozen diverse yet equally galvanizing stories notable for their dark humor, frank sexuality, violence, inventiveness, and fury. Gary Shteyngart, author of the award-winning novel The Russian Debutante’s Handbook [BKL My 15 02], gets things off to a raucously brilliant start with “Shylock on the Neva,” followed by provocative stories by such talents as Josip Novakovich, Aleksandar Hemon, Paul Greenberg, and Charlotte Hobson.