“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.” That whirligig of a sentence sets the vaudevillelike stage for Gary Shteyngart’s first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (Riverhead, $24.95). But he doth protest too much. Vlad’s story, which happens to begin in a downtown Manhattan immigrant absorption office circa 1993, is a wholly original delight.
Twenty-five-year-old Vladimir, who moved to America from Russia when he was 12, lives in a no-man’s-land, constantly reminded by his nagging mother that he is her Failurchka (little failure). After a mobster chases him out of New York, he lands in Eastern Europe’s beacon of hip, Prava (an acutely satirized Prague), where he swindles expat suckers for all they’re worth. Shteyngart has a hell of a voice, grim and sly, hopeful even as his hero bobs and weaves through various states of hopelessness. He is a marvelous wisecracker, but there are real chunks of wisdom holding the circus of identity together.