It’s a familiar story. A rich privileged guy who never had to work a day in his life finds himself entrenched in a difficult and unfamiliar situation. Through this troubling experience, our hero learns important, valuable lessons about life and love. In a way, this is Absurdistan except our hero is a 325 pound rap enthusiast and it is unclear exactly what lesson, if any, he might have learned.
In this case, our hero is Misha Vainberg, the 325-pound son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia. Early on, he compares himself to Prince Myshkin from Dostoyevski’s The Idiot: “Like the prince, I am something of a holy fool… an innocent surrounded by schemers.” The son of a Russian oligarch, he’s stuck in St. Petersburg, penning this book, ostensibly his “love letter to the generals in charge of the Immigration and Naturalization Service” trying to get back to America and to Rouenna, his beloved trash-talking black girlfriend from the Bronx who asks him, while touring his native city, “Where the niggaz at?”He can’t get back into the States because his father has shot and killed an Oklahoma businessman “over a 10 percent stake in a nutria farm” and unlike the freewheeling Russians, the American authorities don’t take kindly to the sons of murderers. As the heir to an ill-gotten bloody fortune in mobbed-up post-Soviet Russia, Misha can have anything he lusts for — top-shelf liquor, pharmaceutical sedatives, human pyramids of prostitutes and multiple servants — but because of his father’s global misdeeds he can’t have that stamp on his passport. After Beloved Papa is assassinated by another kingpin, Misha’s quest to get back to New York leads him on a whiskey-soaked journey to the obscure nation of Absurdistan, a former Soviet satellite on the Caspian Sea. There he gets caught up in the rising tensions between the Svani and Sevo, two Sneetchlike local groups whose primary difference seems to be which way they think “Christ’s footrest” should tilt on the Orthodox cross. Living in the Hyatt, where prostitutes roam the hallways, shrieking “Golly Burton!” every time they think they’ve spotted an employee of a certain well-connected American service-contracting firm, Misha has no real clue what is going on. Eventually, after civil war breaks out in Absurdistan, he takes up the Sevo cause, praying that for once he’s on the side of right.
This book reminded me a lot of “Catch-22” in that it has the feel of a book whose outrageous caricatures will soon become shorthand for real-life situations. The situations Misha finds himself in are funny, until we realize how close to the truth they probably are. For example, A Mossad agent posing as a Texan describes the extensive market research his agency has done on “how genocides are perceived by the American electorate … We give these American schmendricks a map of the world and say, ‘Point to the general area where you think Congo is located.’ Nineteen percent point to the continent of Africa. Another 23 percent point to either India, or South America. We count those as correct answers, because Africa, India, and South America all start out wide and then taper off at the bottom. So, for our purposes, 42 percent of respondents sort of know where Congo is.” Also like “Catch-22, it is rather difficult to explain its magic, so after a few fruitless paragraphs, I should just give up and tell you to read it.