Alyosha Kamyshinskiy came to Pittsburgh from Leningrad some years ago with his wife, two teenage daughters, an advanced degree, and a love of art museums and “gentle poetry” (“a sleigh, a moonlit trail, the melancholy trot of a troika”). In America he put together a fragile life for the family that has since fallen apart: his daughters—one of whom dropped out of college—don’t bother to look for jobs, his wife has died of cancer, and his boss has fired him. He pays the rent with welfare checks and dreams of moving to Chicago to live with his twenty-seven-year-old girlfriend (a former classmate of his older daughter).
He is still seriously debating this possibility at the end of “About Kamyshinskiy,” a story in The Last Chicken in America, Ellen Litman’s collection about a community of Russian immigrants in Pittsburgh, but the reproachful voice of his late wife rings loudly in his mind: How can he even think about abandoning his daughters? Though the story ends inconclusively, one guesses that he will not, in the end, leave Pittsburgh—he will stay put and eventually get an inferior job and muddle through at least the next few years, much as his fellow immigrant friends do.
The twelve stories in the collection take place in and around Squirrel Hill, a historically Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh where many Russian immigrants have settled (in real life as well as in fiction). The immigrants of Litman’s Squirrel Hill all seem to know one another, and often reappear as minor characters in each other’s stories. These stories, spare, realistic, sometimes gently satirical, are told from the various points of view of old widowers, middle-aged divorcees, unemployed engineers, and resentful college students still shackled to their parents by economic necessity.
The book begins in the early 1990s, at the height of Soviet and post-Soviet emigration, and follows some of the same characters for a period of about ten years. During this time, the community prospers. The residents slowly fan out into the “better streets” of the neighborhood and then the suburbs surrounding Squirrel Hill, and come to feel confident that when their young children or grandchildren grow up they will slip easily into middle-class American life. In the story “What Do You Dream Of, Cruiser Aurora?,” Liberman, an elderly man just arrived from Leningrad to join his daughter and eight-year-old grandson, is devastated to find that after only a few years in the States his grandson Pavlik speaks Russian with an American accent; Pavlik’s mother, meanwhile, is already looking into SAT tutors. But ambition and drive are qualities that remain in the background of Litman’s stories, and characters who display them flagrantly, like Pavlik’s mother, are satirized as materialistic boors. Litman is interested less in the Russians’ collective success than in their personal bewilderment and disappointments.
Half of the stories in The Last Chicken in America are narrated by Masha, who graduated from high school in Moscow shortly before her …