David Bezmozgis's debut--Farrar, Straus and Giroux's lead book for the season--floats into stores on a cloud of hype. His work splashed into Harper's, Zoetrope, and The New Yorker within a few weeks last spring, spurring talk of greatness and mighty comparisons--Malamud, Chekhov, Roth. In fact, the seven stories that make up this short collection do announce a talent to cherish. Masterfully paced and softly devastating, Bezmogis's prose conveys immigration's lumbering melancholy without condescension, posturing, or overstatement. His protagonists are the Bermans, Latvian Jews who emigrate to Toronto in 1980. Only child Mark, the authorial stand-in, adapts to these new environs without losing an essential loyalty to his parents, and more than that, to a fundamentally decent world view: He never exempts himself from the fumbling puzzlement he catalogues everywhere around him.
Though Bezmozgis evokes the Russian masters tonally and thematically, he has done more than convey their murmuring despair across the ocean. Instead, he has transplanted a way of seeing into new soil. He evokes the old world in glimpses and truisms and snatches of description: "the detached confidence of the highly placed functionary," "there is always a car waiting downstairs." Such observations are not meant to present a contrast with the new, but to hint at the fundamental working of things: With a little help, anywhere can be made Soviet.
In "Minyan," the most powerful story, elderly immigrants create a black market for subsidized housing. Perhaps it's out of nostalgia or just simple habit. Mark's recently widowed and religiously observant grandfather wins a spot in one such building through his piety. When Itzik, one of his neighbors, dies, a vicious struggle ensues to squeeze out his roommate and perhaps lover, Herschel. Itzik spent time in a Soviet prison and may well have been a monster in his maturity; "for him nothing was forbidden," observes his son, still raging. But Herschel is gentle, intellectual, observant--and sure to be victimized by those more skilled at playing the system. After a good measure of suspense, the story ends with a wry humanist coda worthy of Isaac Singer.
The title work, already hugely praised but perhaps only the third-best here, reimagines Isaac Babel's "Guy de Maupassant," a classic of sexual awakening. Mark is 16 and a rec-room Dostoyevskian ("The suburbs offered nothing and so I lived a subterranean life. I smoked hash, watched television, read, and masturbated") when his uncle brings over "the latest in a string of last chances." This last chance is a Russian bride and her 14-year-old daughter Natasha, already raddled by the free-for-all of post-communist Moscow. Mother and daughter clash, and sex with Natasha unveils Mark's callowness to himself: Looking into his basement room as she did, all he sees is darkness.
"Tapka," the first story, offers piercing metaphors for immigration. New immigrants Mark and his cousin Jana are taking care of a neighbor's cherished Lhasa Apso. The children try out their mastery of important English words learned at school ("shithead," "gaylord," "mental case") on each other, then somehow shift them to the dog, as if to send the first signals of distance from their parents' world. "Don't say that," Mark tells Jana. "It's not right." And indeed, this small act of childish self-assertion feels like a major renunciation. The dog gets away from the children, runs into the street, and falls under the wheels of a passing car.
At the vet's, Mark's father offers to replace the dog, but his owner is inconsolable: "I don't want a new one. Everything we have here is new." Bezmozgis himself is clearly attached to the old dogs of immigrant lit--the moods and manners of the old country--but it's to the credit of this book that his distinctive voice feels more like a new animal.