At the Trough

Absurdistan

by Gary Shteyngart
Random House, 333 pp., $24.95

The hero of Gary Shteyngart’s extremely funny second novel is Misha Vainberg, son of a “St. Leninsburg” oligarch who is, we are told, the 1,238th-richest man in Russia. Misha has unflattering things to say about Jews, gays, inner-city dwellers, and white guys from the State Department. He has a voracious sexual appetite unchecked by any notions of political or other kinds of correctness; among his many conquests, he has sex with his stepmother shortly after his dad’s funeral. (Misha’s defense: “It is a capital insult in this country not to make love to a naked woman, even if she is related to you.”)

But he has an even bigger appetite for food. Misha weighs 325 pounds and is unnervingly eloquent when it comes to describing his own physique, ruminating about “tits” and “buttery thighs.” Take this snapshot of the man at dinner:

My body fell into a rocking motion like the religious people rock when they’re deep in the thrall of their god. I finished off the first kebab and the one after that, my chin oily with sturgeon juices, my breasts shivering as if they’d been smothered with packets of ice. Another chunk of fish fell into my mouth, this one well dusted with parsley and olive oil. I breathed in the smells of the sea, my right fist still clenched, fingers digging into my palm, my nose touching the plate, sturgeon extract coating my nostrils, my little circumcised khui burning with the joy of release.

Incidentally, about that word khui. As readers have probably figured out from context, it’s a vulgar Russian term for a particular male body part, a word that graces the walls of toilet stalls across the former Soviet Union. Misha, as he informs us, has been mutilated in an unfortunate encounter with a bunch of manic Hasids, who have done a rather haphazard job of physically inducting him into the Jewish faith in the back of a “mitzvah mobile.” We are treated to several supremely lyrical descriptions of the hapless organ at choice moments in the story, and I can assure you that not a detail is wasted.

A botched circumcision is the least of it. Misha endures countless insults, bodily assault, war, and some serious overcharging. His father is blown up by a pair of discontented relatives. (“I think, in some measure, we’re all sort of responsible for his death,” one of them solemnly tells the grieving son.) And through it all our hero is mourning the loss of his great love, a Latina homegirl from the Bronx named Rouenna. They met a few years back, when Misha was getting a BA degree in the US. Since then, though, the two of them have been separated by circumstances beyond their control: before Misha’s father died, he ordered the killing of an American businessman, which is why Misha finds himself on an Immigration and Naturalization Service blacklist. The only way he can hope to visit …

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