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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In the reception room, Vladimir found the bantam security guard from Lima pinioned against the wall. A chunky old Russian gent sporting the traditional flea market attire and six-dollar crew cut had trapped the poor fellow with his crutches and was now slowly leaning in on his prey, trying to bite him with his silver teeth. Alas, at the first hint of internecine violence, the native-born Assimilation Facilitators had ignobly fled the scene, leaving behind their Harlem, U.S.A., coffee mugs and Brooklyn Museum tote bags. Only junior clerk Vladimir Girshkin remained to assimilate the masses. "Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!" he shouted to the Russian. "We never do that to the guard."

The madman turned to face him. "Girshkin!" he sputtered. "It's you!" He pushed himself away from the guard in one remarkable motion and started limping toward Vladimir. He was a man of small stature, made smaller by a weighty green rucksack bearing down on him. One side of his azure guayabera shirt was filled bosom to navel with Soviet war medals, and their weight pulled down one collar, exposing a veined lump of neck.

"What do you want from me?" Vladimir said.

"What do I want from you?" the Russian shouted. "My God, what haughtiness!" A shaking crutch was quickly lifted into place between them. The lunatic executed a practice jab: On guard!

"I spoke to you on the phone last month," the crutch-bearer complained. "You sounded very cultured on the phone, remember?"

Cultured, yes. That would be him. Vladimir examined the man who was killing his morning. He had a broad Slavic (as opposed to Jewish) face, with a web of creases so deep they could have been carved with a pocketknife. Bushy Brezhnevian eyebrows were overtaking his forehead. A small island of hair, still blond, was moored at the geographical center of his pate. "We spoke, heh?" Vladimir said, in the devil-may-care tone of Soviet officialdom. He was a big fan of the syllable "heh."

"Oh, yes!" the old man enthused.

"And what did I say to you, heh?"

"You said to come over. Miss Harosset said to come over. The fan said to come over. So I took the number five train to Bowling Green like you said." He looked pleased with himself.

Vladimir took a tentative step back toward his office. The guard was settling back on his perch, rebuttoning his shirt, and mumbling something in his language. Still, something was amiss. Let's tally up: angry Slav; cowering security guard; low-paying, absurdist job; misspent youth; sex night with Challah. Oh, yes. "What's this fan?" Vladimir asked.

"It's the one in my bedroom," the fellow said, smirking at a question so obvious. "I have two fans."

"The fan said to come over," Vladimir said. And he has two fans. Right then, on the spot, Vladimir recognized that this wasn't a problem client. This was a fun client. A loop-de-loop client. The kind of client that turned on your morning switch and kept you brisk and agitated all day. "Listen," Vladimir said to this Fan Man, "Why don't we step into my office and you tell me everything."

"Bravo, young one!" The Fan Man gave a victory salute to his erstwhile victim the security guard. He limped into the back office, where he lowered himself onto one of the cold plastic chairs. Painfully, he removed the green beast of a rucksack.

"So, what's your name? We'll start with that."

"Rybakov," said the Fan Man. "Aleksander. Or just Aleks."

"Please...Tell me about yourself. If you're comfortable -"

"I'm psychotic," Rybakov said. His enormous eyebrows twitched in confirmation, and he smiled with false modesty, like a kid who brings in his father the astronaut on career day.

"Psychotic!" Vladimir said. He tried to look encouraging. It was not uncommon for the mad Russians to give him their diagnosis right off the bat; some treated it almost like a profession or a calling in life. "And you've been diagnosed?"

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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