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
    May 2003, 480 pages

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"That's true enough," Vladimir agreed. "But I think what you need, Mr. Rybakov, is an immigration lawyer...For unfortunately, I am not..."

"Oh, I know who you are, little goose," Mr. Rybakov said.

"Pardon?" Vladimir said. The last time he had been called "little goose" was twenty years ago, when he was, indeed, a diminutive, unsteady creature, his head covered with a smattering of golden down.

"The Fan sang an epic song for me the other night," said Rybakov. "It was called 'The Tale of Vladimir Girshkin and Yelena Petrovna, His Mama.'"

"Mother," Vladimir whispered. He didn't know what else to say. That word, when spoken in the company of Russian men, was sacred in itself. "You know my mother?"

"We haven't had the pleasure of being formally introduced," Rybakov said. "But I read about her in the business section of the New Russian Word. What a Jewess! The pride of your people. A capitalist she-wolf. Scourge of the hedge funds. Ruthless czarina. Oh, my dear, dear Yelena Petrovna. And here I am chatting with her son! Surely he knows the right people, fellow Hebrews perhaps, among the dastardly agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service."

Vladimir scrunched up his hairy upper lip so as to smell its animal fragrance - a soothing pastime. "But you're mistaken," he said. "There is nothing I can do for you. I lack Mother's cunning, I have no friends in the INS...I have no friends anywhere. The apple has fallen far from the apple tree, as they say. Mother may be a she-wolf, but look at me..." Vladimir gestured expansively at the deprivation around him.

Just then the double doors opened, and, twenty minutes late for work, the Chinese and Haitian women - Vladimir's fellow junior clerks in the back office - walked in from the streets, laden with buttered rolls and coffee. They retreated behind the desks labeled china and haiti, tucking in their long, gauzy summer skirts. When Vladimir's gaze returned to his client, ten hundred-dollar bills, ten portraits of purse-lipped Benjamin Franklin, were unfurled on the table to form a paper fan.

"Ai!" Vladimir cried. Instinctively, he grabbed the hard currency and deposited it inside his shirt pocket. He glanced at his international colleagues. Oblivious of the crime just committed, they were stuffing themselves with morning rolls, bantering about recipes for Haitian crackers and how to know if a man was decent. "Mr. Rybakov!" Vladimir whispered. "What are you doing? You cannot give me money. This is not Russia!"

"Everywhere is Russia," said Mr. Rybakov philosophically. "Everywhere you go...Russia."

"Now I want you to place your upturned palm on the table," Vladimir instructed. "I will quickly throw the money in there, you put the money in your wallet, and we shall consider this matter closed."

"I would prefer not to," said Aleksander Rybakov, the Soviet Bartleby. "Look," he said. "Here's what we'll do. Come on over to my house. We'll talk. The Fan likes his tea early on Mondays. Oh, and we'll have Jack Daniel's, and beluga, and luscious sturgeon, too. I live on Eighty-seventh Street, right next to the Guggenheim Museum, that eyesore. But it's a nice penthouse, views of the park, a Sub-Zero refrigerator...A lot more civilized than this place, you'll see...Forget about your duties here. Helping Equadorians move to America, it's a pointless task. Come, let's be friends!"

"You live on the Upper East Side...?" Vladimir babbled. "A penthouse? On Social Security? But how can it be?" He had the dizzy impression that the room had begun to sway. The only enjoyment Vladimir derived from his job was encountering foreigners even more flummoxed by American society than he was. But today this simple pleasure was proving highly elusive. "Where did you get the money?" Vladimir demanded of his client. "Who bought you this zero refrigerator?"

The Fan Man reached over and pinched Vladimir's nose between thumb and forefinger, a familiar Russian gesture reserved for small children. "I'm psychotic," the Fan Man explained. "But I'm no idiot."

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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