American Gary Shteyngart is an author I’m sure a recently departed friend and colleague of ours would have liked – a son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe with a taste for good food and drink, a love of words and a keen eye for life’s ridiculousness.Shteyngart’s most recent novel Arburdistan is a satiric romp, in the style of Vanity Fair, through post-Soviet pandemonium. As it opens, Misha Vainberg – the grotesquely overweight, overpampered son of the 2168th richest man in Russia – is trying to engineer a return to the United States, where he attended university and his foul-mouthed Hispanic girlfriend awaits.The American authorities won’t let him back in because his since-deceased father killed an Oklahoma businessman. So Misha is left stranded in St. Petersburg feeling like a character from Dostoyevsky.I am something of a holy fool. I am an innocent surrounded by schemers. I am a puppy deposited in a den of wolves…Like Prince Myshkin, I am not perfect, In the next 318 pages you may occasionally see me boxing the ears of my manservant or drinking one Laphroaig too many.But you will also see me attempt to save an entire race from genocide; you will see me become a benefactor to St. Petersburg’s miserable children; and you will watch me make love to fallen women with the childlike passion of the pure.In fact, that’s not even the half of it.In quest of a Western passport, and with the US consulate turning a deaf ear to his pleas for clemency, Misha leaves Putin’s Russia for Absurdistan – a fictional hell-hole on the Caspian full of arcane ethnic-religious violence and Halliburton types trying to exploit non-existent oil reserves.He ends up – as usually Westeners do in places like this – in the Hyatt. There he is offered some of the local amenities.As I stepped into the corridor I was waylaid by a tall, tanned beauty with electric lips, a clingy camisole reaching down to her hot pants. “Golly Burton, Golly Burton!” she said. “You Golly Burton?” She poked at me with an audacious finger. Her face was as powdered as an American doughnut.“Eh?” I said.…She grabbed my hand and pressed it to her wet forehead. “Ooofa, I have such hot temperature for Golly Burton. Thirty percent discount. You so aroused mister. You bust a nut right now, maybe.” Or maybe not.In the meantime, some new acquaintances have arranged for Misha to get some counterfeit papers. A meeting is set up – where else? – behind that most American of chain stores.He took me past the bathrooms reeking awfully of industrial detergent, past a framed print of California’s Pacific Coast Highway, and to a door that opened into a small cul-de-sac where the McDonald’s garbage was stored in vast plastic containers. It took me a while to pinpoint Jean-Michel Lefèvre of the Belgian consulate, lying atop a soiled mattress, with both hands grasping the edges, as if he were Jonah just spat out of the whale.What Misha doesn’t know is that civil war is approaching Absurdistan, leaving him, Belgian passport notwithstanding, stranded.To be effective, satire has to be simultaneously uncompromising and enjoyable, and Shteyngart’s novel, like a great Laphroig, is both.It ends with our hero in limbo, but the hope remains nonetheless, that he’s on his way to a better place.In memoriam: Michael Jackson.
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