Maria Reva (Doubleday, 224 pages) $25.95
Good citizens need not fear: All the rest of us, though, had better. The setting of the interlaced stories that eventually cohere into a novel is a boondocks town, more precisely an apartment building that isn’t officially there: “Nineteen thirty-three Ivansk Street, Kirovka, Ukraine, USSR. Mother Earth.” The time is the late-Soviet era and then early post-Soviet era. The four main characters are Mikhail Ivanovich, a slow, dutiful government official who, post-Soviet, becomes the security guard of a mummified saint; Konstantyn Ilych, a poet who, for refusing to apologize for telling a “political joke” that can’t even be quoted back at him, loses his standing and his wife, and in post Soviet times becomes the proprietor of that mummified saint; Zaya, an orphan with a cleft lip who, between escapes from foster homes and an institution, becomes a beauty pageant contestant and then, in anything goes post-Soviet times, the proprietor of the orphanage where she spent several years of her youth; and number four, Milena Markivna, the poet’s calculating wife, then ex-wife, then wily shakedown artist. Some of the episodes have been published as short stories, and the longest one, “Miss USSR,” would make a comical movie.
The best parts of the debut novel by Reva, a Ukrainian-born Canadian, seem dream-inspired, eerie from the outside, but unblinking to the characters. Mikhail Ivanovich, my favorite character, may have been hatched from that great Ukrainian odd-bird Gogol’s nest. In “Lucky Toss,” having, to his relief and amazement, recovered the missing teeth of the mummified saint (they had been knocked out while Mikhail Ivanovich was cleaning her case and then lost, from his pocket, on a wild goose chase):
“I uncapped the tube of glue. Its cloying smell spiked my headache, brought on a wave of nausea. I reached into my breast pocket, unwrapped the kerchief. Inside, I found only a hole. With increasing horror, I discovered that the pocket, too, had a new hole. This time I could not chalk up the loss to bad luck: the teeth had gnawed through both layers of lining. And yet again they were at large, free to wreak havoc upon me.”
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