Excerpt from The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Russian Debutante's Handbook

A Novel

by Gary Shteyngart

The Russian Debutante's Handbook
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2002, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2003, 480 pages

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PART I
NEW YORK,
1993

1. THE STORY OF VLADIMIR GIRSHKIN

The story of Vladimir Girshkin - part P. T. Barnum, part V. I. Lenin, the man who would conquer half of Europe (albeit the wrong half) - begins the way so many other things begin. On a Monday morning. In an office. With the first cup of instant coffee gurgling to life in the common lounge.

His story begins in New York, on the corner of Broadway and Battery Place, the most disheveled, godforsaken, not-for-profit corner of New York's financial district. On the tenth floor, the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society greeted its clients with the familiar yellow water-stained walls and dying hydrangeas of a sad Third World government office. In the reception room, under the gentle but insistent prodding of trained Assimilation Facilitators, Turks and Kurds called a truce, Tutsis queued patiently behind Hutus, Serbs chatted up Croats by the demilitarized water fountain.

Meanwhile, in the cluttered back office, junior clerk Vladimir Girshkin - the immigrant's immigrant, the expatriate's expatriate, enduring victim of every practical joke the late twentieth century had to offer and an unlikely hero for our times - was going at it with the morning's first double-cured-spicy-soppressata-and-avocado sandwich. How Vladimir loved the unforgiving hardness of the soppressata and the fatty undertow of the tender avocado! The proliferation of this kind of Janus-faced sandwich, as far as he was concerned, was the best thing about Manhattan in the summer of 1993.

Vladimir was twenty-five today. He had lived in Russia for twelve years, and then there were the thirteen years spent here. That was his life - it added up. And now it was falling apart.

This would be the worst birthday of his life. Vladimir's best friend Baobab was down in Florida covering his rent, doing unspeakable things with unmentionable people. Mother, roused by the meager achievements of Vladimir's first quarter-century, was officially on the warpath. And, in possibly the worst development yet, 1993 was the Year of the Girlfriend. A downcast, heavyset American girlfriend whose bright orange hair was strewn across his Alphabet City hovel as if a cadre of Angora rabbits had visited. A girlfriend whose sickly-sweet incense and musky perfume coated Vladimir's unwashed skin, perhaps to remind him of what he could expect on this, the night of his birthday: Sex. Every week, once a week, they had to have sex, as both he and this large pale woman, this Challah, perceived that without weekly sex their relationship would fold up according to some unspecified law of relationships.

Yes, sex night with Challah. Challah with the bulging cheeks and determined radish of a nose, looking ever matronly and suburban, despite all the torn black shirts, gothic bracelets, and crucifixes that downtown Manhattan's goofiest shops managed to sell to her. Sex night - an offer Vladimir dared not refuse, given the prospect of waking up in a bed entirely empty; well, empty save for lonely Vladimir. How did that work again? You open your eyes, turn, and stare into the face of...the alarm clock. A busy and unforgiving face that, unlike a lover's, will say only "tick tock."

Suddenly, Vladimir heard the frenzied croaking of an elderly Russian out in the reception room: "Opa! Opa! Tovarisch Girshkin! Ai! Ai! Ai!"

The problem clients. They would come first thing Monday morning, having spent the weekend rehearsing their problems with their loathsome friends, practicing angry postures in front of the bathroom mirrors of their Brighton Beach studios.

It was time to act. Vladimir braced himself against the desk and stood up. All alone in the back office, with no point of reference other than the kindergarten-sized chairs and desks that comprised the furniture, he suddenly felt himself remarkably tall. A twenty-five-year-old man in an oxford shirt gone yellow under the armpits, frayed slacks with the cuffs coming comically undone, and wing tips that bore the black traces of a house fire, he dwarfed his surroundings like the lone skyscraper they built in Queens, right across the East River. But it wasn't true: Vladimir was short.

From The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart, Copyright © June 2002, Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.

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