David Bezmozgis became an overnight star when he published stories in the holy trinity of American magazines for fiction lovers: the New Yorker
, and Zoetrope
. With the publication of his first book, Natasha
, he has been compared to Chekhov and Philip Roth, and the comparison is more than just promotional copy. Natasha
follows the experiences of a family of Russian Jews who settle in Toronto and set about reinventing themselves. The loosely connected stories are narrated by the son, Mark, who attempts to understand not only his new world but also his parents. As the book progresses, his growth into the frustrations of adolescence mirrors his family's disappointments as they attempt to escape their old lives in the immigrant ghetto and create new identities. Bezmozgis calls the stories "autobiographical fiction," as they are largely inspired by his own family's past, but make no mistake, these are fully realized works of literature, complete with an attention to language and an eye for detail that invoke the best of minimalist writing. Bezmozgis doesn't reinvent the form here--he sticks to traditional themes such as the search for self and cultural dislocation--but he tells his stories with a grace and quiet sensitivity that's so rare these days it's practically an endangered species.
And there are a couple of literary masterpieces in Natasha. The title story, which relates Mark's sexual experimentation with a cousin by marriage during a summer spent dealing drugs, manages to be both a touching coming-of-age tale and one of the freshest inversions of the suburban dream in years. "The Second Strongest Man," a story of the reunion of Mark's family with a Russian weightlifter, manages to conflate the decline of the Russia with the emptiness of North American life in its tale of aging men whose time has passed them by. Bezmozgis divides his time between Canada and the U.S., but Natasha is international in the scope of its subjects--modern Russia, Toronto's immigrant communities, Judaism, various translations of the American dream. It's the literature of globalization, and Bezmozgis has proven himself to be a global writer. --Peter Darbyshire
--This text refers to the
From Publishers Weekly
Like the author of this remarkable debut collection of seven linked stories, the protagonist, Mark Berman, emigrated with his parents from Latvia to Toronto in 1980. Bezmozgis writes with subtlety and control, moving from Mark's boyhood arrival in Canada to his adult reckoning with his grandparents' decline, rendering the immigrant experience with powerful specificity of character, place and history. "This was 1983, and as Russian Jews, recent immigrants, and political refugees, we were still a cause. We had good PR," he writes in "Roman Berman, Massage Therapist," about the humiliations of turning to well-meaning but condescending Canadian Jews for financial help. Bezmozgis also considers North American Jewish identity, as in "An Animal to the Memory," which interrogates the centrality of the Holocaust-and victimhood-to the Jewish sense of self. His stories are as compassionate as they are critical. In "Minyan," Mark attends synagogue with his grandfather: "Most of the old Jews came because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences, I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case, the motivation was not tradition but history." The collection's strength lies in how Bezmozgis layers the specifics of Russian-Jewish experience with universal childhood and adolescent dilemmas. The title story, about Mark's sexual escapades with his 14-year-old cousin by marriage, evokes both his stoner, suburban "subterranean life" and the numbing exigencies of Natasha's adolescence in Russia. In "Tapka," about the fate of a cosseted dog, Bezmozgis captures the insecurity and loneliness of recent immigrants while suggesting a child's guilty psychology with utter believability. These complex, evocative stories herald the arrival of a significant new voice.
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