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 by Gary Shteyngart
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2002, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2003, 480 pages

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"By many people. I'm under observation as we speak," said Mr. Rybakov, peering under Vladimir's desk. "Look, I even wrote a letter to the president in the New York Times."

He produced a crumpled piece of paper reeking of alcohol, tea, and his own wet palm. "Dear Mr. President," read Vladimir. "I am a retired Russian sailor, a proud combatant against the Nazi terror in the Second World War and a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. I have lived in your wonderful country for more than five years and have received much moral and financial support from the warm and highly sexed American people (in particular, my thoughts alight on the women skating around Central Park with just a bit of cloth wrapped around their breasts). Back in Russia, senior citizens with mental disabilities are kept in dilapidated hospitals and humiliated on a daily basis by young hooligans who have scarcely heard of the Great Patriotic War and have no sympathy for their elders who fought tooth and nail to keep out the murderous Krauts. In America, I am able to lead a full, satisfactory life. I select and purchase groceries at the Sloan's supermarket on Eighty-ninth Street and Lexington. I watch television, specifically the show about the comical black midget on channel five. And I help defend America by investing part of my social security income into companies such as Martin Marietta and United Technologies. Soon I will become a citizen of this great nation and will be able to choose my leaders (not like in Russia). So I wish you, Mr. President, and your desirable American wife and developing young daughter, a very healthy, happy New Year. Respectfully, Aleksander Rybakov."

"Your English is impeccable."

"Oh, I can't take credit for that," the Fan Man said. "That was Miss Harosset's translation. She was faithful to the original, you can believe me. She wanted to put 'German' instead of 'Kraut,' but I insisted. You have to write what you feel inside, I told her."

"And the New York Times actually published this letter?" Vladimir asked.

"Those cretinous editors crossed out half my words," Mr. Rybakov said, shaking a symbolic pen at Vladimir. "It's American censorship, my friend. You don't blot out the words of a poet! Well, I've instructed Miss Harosset to commence a lawsuit on this matter as well. Her little sister is thrashing around with an important state prosecutor, so I think we're in good hands."

Miss Harosset. That must be his social worker. Vladimir looked down at the blank form on which he should have been jotting down information. A rich and particular psychosis was taking shape before him, threatening to upset the meager line allotted for "client's mental state." He grew restless, attributing it to the coffee settling within his abdomen, and started tapping out "The Internationale" on his metal desk, a nervous habit inherited from his father. Outside the nonexistent windows of the back office, the canyons of the financial district were awash with rationalism and dull commercial hope: suburban secretaries explored bargains on cosmetics and hose; Ivy Leaguers swallowed entire pieces of yellowtail in one satisfied gulp. But here it was just Vladimir the twenty-five-year-old and the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Vladimir looked up from his thoughts-his client was wheezing and sputtering like an overtaxed radiator. "Look, Rybakov," he said. "You are a model immigrant. You collect Social Security. You publish in the Times. What can I possibly do for you?"

"The crooks!" Rybakov shouted, grabbing once again for his crutch. "The awful crooks! They won't give me my citizenship! They've read the letter in the Times. And they know about the fan. They know about both fans. You know how some summer nights the blades get a little rusty and you have to grease them with corn oil? So they've heard the trikka trikka and the krik krak, and they're scared! An old invalid, they're scared of! There are cowards in every country, even in New York."

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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