Russian Roulette

By Eugenia Zukerman,
who is a flutist and the author of four books
Thursday, April 10, 2008


By Edward Docx

Mariner. 395 pp. Paperback, $13.95

"Pravda" is a book on fire. Ignited by a family secret, Edward Docx's novel of lies, betrayals, revelations and repercussions is written with a mastery and passion that summon up Dickens and Dostoevsky, peppered with a hip, wild 21st-century perspective.

Although meticulously crafted, "Pravda" seems as spontaneous as a musical improvisation. Told from multiple points of view, the story zigs back and forth from New York to London to Paris and St. Petersburg. Gabriel Glover, twin of Isabella, arrives in St. Petersburg from London to visit his Russian-born mother, Maria, only to find her dead in her apartment. Maria had gone back to Russia for reasons she could not share with her children: She had lung cancer and felt driven, before it was too late, to meet the son she gave up at birth before the twins were born.

Gabriel summons his sister to St. Petersburg for the burial. While he and Isabella try to come to grips with their loss, Arkady Artamenkov, the abandoned half brother they don't know exists, conspires to find the twins. He met his mother for the first time just before her death, and now he wants to claim his rightful inheritance. Arkady needs money to finish his degree at the conservatory so he can have a shot at a career as a pianist. Unscrupulous and brutish, his demonic character is redeemed only at the keyboard.

While the plot thickens in a pressure cooker of complexities, the reader is dazzled by descriptions like this one, of Arkady walking through the underbelly of St. Petersburg late at night: "He knew well that it was in these dead hours, when Petersburg slipped off its creamy European robes and revealed itself a mean and swarthy peasant once more, that the real business of Russian life got done. Boy and man, he had seen it: the black Mercedes rolling down the half-lit street, the tinny police car idling, smear-faced street girls slipping like sylphs along the railings of the canals, and the drugged and the drunk always watching from their darkened doorways, glassy-eyed and desperate, crawling back and forth between heaven and hell, one scabby knee at a time."

Docx nails character with economy and originality. There is the twins' estranged father, Nicholas Glover, who "had the kind of demeanor that Dorian Gray might have developed if that asinine portrait had never been painted and the young fool had relied instead on the excellence of his genes and the incisiveness of his wit to see him handsomely through to his sixties." Even minor players are made memorable: "The other was a man of average height but on the brink of irreversible obesity, balding, with a puffy, pastry-fond face, small eyes, and the fastidious manner of the superfluous employee."

Inhabiting the heads and hearts of each of his characters, the author reveals the workings of their minds, the vagaries of their pathologies, the contradictions of their characters, the flaws and the humanity in each of them. The voices, external as well as internal, are pitch perfect, as are Arkady's ferocious thoughts when he finally meets his mother:

"All he wanted to do was hurt her as viciously as he could.

" 'Can you tell me anything about your life, Arkady?'

"To ram her words back down her throat until she choked. To show her every second of it. All the years of [expletive] he had been through. Every fight. Every beating. Every bruise. Do to her what had been done to him. Every last thing."

We never "hear" Arkady play the sonatas and concertos he has been practicing, but we do witness him playing jazz: "Arkady appeared to inhabit the mass or density of his instrument, as if he had assumed command not only of sound but also of the space and time that the piano occupied . . . as if the quick of his will was alive in the grain of the soundboard."

Indeed, music acts as an antidote to darkness in this tale. "Then, suddenly, there it was," Docx writes, "manifest among them: the age-old miracle of music. Where before there had been people-din, chair-scrape, glass-chink, fractured, fractious, fragmentary sound, now there was only the startling beauty of harmony and rhythm and order, of tone and skill, the compelling narrative of human talent expressing itself."

When Arkady finds the twins, he reveals more shocking family secrets, then asks them for money to finish his studies. The twins confer. Gabriel wants to hear him play first, to know if he is truly talented. "What if he is brilliant?" Isabella asks. "Does it change anything as far as we are concerned?" But in fact everything changes for Gabriel and Isabella Glover. They are searching for pravda (truth, in Russian) and coming to terms with their identities and their lives. "When a parent passes away," Docx writes, "the family demons do not retreat but rise from their sarcophagi and move out across the borders of the mind, swearing in their puppet regimes as they pass."

In "Pravda," Docx neither shrinks from the demons nor exorcises them. Instead, he lets them writhe and exhaust themselves in a novel so vivid it glows in the dark -- like truth.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company