by Roberto Friedman
Out There spent several happy days last week immersed in reading Little Failure, the acclaimed memoir by author Gary Shteyngart (Random House) now out in a cute little paperback ($16). The poignant yet hilarious tale of a Russian immigrant adjusting to his new life in America, the book has many passages like the following, in which the boy Shteyngart tries to understand his new country by watching 1970s network TV.
"The Brady Bunch: Why are Mr. and Mrs. Brady always so happy even though Mrs. Brady has clearly already had a razvod [divorce] with her previous husband and now they are both raising children who are not theirs? Also, what is the origin of their white slave Alice ?
"Three's Company: What does it mean, 'gay?' Why does everyone think the blond girl is so pretty, when it is clearly the brunette who is beautiful?
"Planet of the Apes: If Charlton Heston is a Republican, are the monkeys Soviets?"
Befuddling new world indeed. Shteyngart, who has been called the "Chekhov-Roth -Apatow of Queens," walks us through his journey from his boyhood (born Igor Shteyngart) in late-Soviet era Leningrad, to gradual assimilation via the Solomon Schechter School of Queens and Oberlin College, to his present life as bestselling novelist and literary icon. Culture shocks abound. "Teachers try to intervene. They tell me to get rid of the great furry overcoat. Trim my unkempt, bushy hair a little. Stop talking to myself in Russian. Be more, you know, normal." You can tell it's been a life-long effort for little Gary.
By happy coincidence, The New York Times Book Review recently published a special issue devoted to Russian literature. The works under consideration ranged from There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In – Three Novellas About Family by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Penguin) to Stalin – Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin (Penguin), in which review it is asserted that "the first volume of a new biography argues that Stalin had social as well as organizational skills." Yep, old Uncle Joe Stalin was such a "people person" he was responsible for the deaths of millions of them!
But the essay we devoured first was one by Russian and American lesbian author and activist Masha Gessen, "To Russia, with Tough Love," written in the form of a "Dear John" letter to her hometown of Moscow. B.A.R. readers will be interested in her description of a public monument there: "A scroll-like shape is set into the wall, with the faces of two teenage boys looking tenderly at each other. It memorializes Alexander Herzen and Nikolai Ogarev , who came up here in 1827 to swear to each other, in plain view of all of Moscow, that they would spend their lives fighting for democracy. They were teenagers at the time, and they were telling the truth.
"This odd monument was constructed in 1979. By the 1990s, it was overgrown by shrubbery, the half-wall and stele were covered with graffiti and the floor with cigarette butts. This was where I liked to bring my dates in the 1990s: It was practically a secret monument, and the homoeroticism of the image was unmistakable." That's our kind of lover's lane!
OT's own paternal grandfather escaped village life in Mother Russia before the Revolution. Impoverished, Jewish, and skilled with horses, he always said that had he stayed behind, he would surely have been conscripted and ended up as cannon fodder for the Czar's army. Instead he found himself a living as a bantamweight prizefighter on the Lower East Side in New York City. All in all the right choice, Grandpa Izzy!
Mange & manger
Last Saturday night found Out There ROTF laughing at the Castro Theatre during the Kinsey Sicks' performance of Oy Vey in a Manger, the send-off show for the great talent Irwin Keller, one of the group's founding members and the original Winnie .
In the show, Winnie, Rachel (Ben Schatz), Trixie (Jeff Manabat), and Trampolina (Spencer Brown) are trying to sell off their manger before it goes into foreclosure. Per the Sicks: "Crises arise, secrets are revealed, Jewish-Gentile tensions surface, and mayhem ensues, all in glorious four-part harmony." At show's end, Keller bade us heartfelt farewell, and brought to the stage the group's fetching new Winnie, San Francisco's own Nathan Marken, for his debut in a duet. He filled Winnie's pumps nicely, and we're told it would be the only time that both Winnies will ever appear in the same performance. Welcome to the mayhem!