New World Blues

For much of the twentieth century, Russians, especially those living in cities, tended to have small families. Even during the relative political and economic stability of the Brezhnev era, space and food and goods remained scarce. Many families had only one child, few had more than two, and even those two were often separated by seven or eight years for the same practical reasons. And so, when Soviet Jews began emigrating to North America in the 1970s, they brought with them what was, essentially, a generation of only children. Most of these children arrived badly dressed, in East Bloc clothes that were eight to ten years behind the current fashion. At school their lack of English made them serious and shy. The first in their families to pick up the language, they had an early sense of responsibility for their parents. As in most immigrant families, the parents spoke often of the possibilities awaiting their lucky American-raised children, and they expected the children to take advantage of them. In Russian families, however, this job fell entirely to the one child.

This beleaguered only child has been at the center of much of the fiction written so far by the Brezhnev generation of immigrants, whose first books have just begun to come out in the last few years. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, a comic novel by Gary Shteyngart about a Soviet émigré who comes to New York at thirteen and returns to Eastern Europe at twenty-five to join the Russian mafia, is, in essence, the story of a boy who’ll go to any length to make his mother proud. There Are Jews in My House, a story collection published last year by Lara Vapnyar, is filled with solitary children observing the adults around them, both in the old country and the new.

Like them, David Bezmozgis has just written his first book, a collection of stories that follows a family of Latvian-Jewish immigrants in Toronto over some fifteen years. The Bermans come in the usual configuration of three: Roman, Bella, and their son, Mark, who narrates the book. They are eventually joined by uncles, cousins, grandparents, and other members of the extended family. The stories are full of familiar episodes from Soviet immigrant life. The Bermans arrive speaking no English; the parents spend their days taking language lessons at the community college and looking for work. Mark enrolls in first grade.

That first spring, even though most of what was said around me remained a mystery, a thin rivulet of meaning trickled into my cerebral catch basin and collected into a little pool of knowledge. By the end of May I could sing the ABC song. Television taught me to say “What’s up, Doc?” and “super-duper.” The playground introduced me to “shithead,” “mental case,” and “gaylord.”

Over the next two years, Mark slips into Canadian life with relative ease while his parents struggle. Roman, who had been an Olympic weight lifting coach and physical therapist in Riga, works …

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