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FICTION

Young and Restless

Young guys worry about sex in these two coming-of-age novels from India and Russia.

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Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, December 21, 2008; Page BW07

FAMILY PLANNING

By Karan Mahajan | Harper Perennial. 266 pp. Paperback, $13.95

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MY LIFE AT FIRST TRY

By Mark Budman | Counterpoint. 218 pp. $24

Two bittersweet comedies from first-generation Americans speak the universal language of sexual anxiety that young men everywhere understand.

One is by Karan Mahajan, who grew up in New Delhi. Family Planning, his sprightly first novel, portrays India's capital -- 10 million strong -- in all its explosive fecundity. The city's sprawling tangle of highways and overpasses is the proud work of Rakesh Ahuja, the minister of urban development, who's eager to "rid the city of traffic lights and reinvigorate traffic flow." He's equally productive at home, where he has 13 children and another one on the way.

The story opens when Ahuja's oldest son, 16-year-old Arjun, catches his parents making love on the floor of the nursery while four babies are screaming away. He only saw them for "1.67 seconds," but the vision "completely shattered the part of him that'd been taught -- mainly by America -- that sex was the spontaneous transfer of fluids between very attractive, naked, blond people." He's left wondering: "How did Mama and Papa still have sex? How did their two lumpy bodies stack up, each one lost in the vast, flabby expanse of the other's skin? Was this sex or -- swimming"?

Witnessing that primal scene disrupts the entire family's equilibrium and drives the sometimes zany action over the next three days. Arjun confronts his father: "Why do you and Mama keep having babies?" The answer to that uncomfortable question sends Mr. Ahuja to the origins of his unhappy marriage and the cruel trick that brought him and his wife together in the throes of grief and desperation. Distraught by these painful memories and his son's disgust, Mr. Ahuja resigns from India's chaotic government for the 63rd time. But like any teenage boy, Arjun is eager to blot his parents' sex life out of his mind. He's far more interested in impressing a pretty girl on the school bus with tales of his rock band. But then he realizes he'll actually have to start one. He doesn't play an instrument.

Mahajan's domestic and political comedy bounces along so lightly that the story's moments of despair strike oddly discordant notes: Mr. Ahuja's government antics, his wife's fractured English and their son's musical posing are all genuinely funny, but at times intimations of their loneliness and frustration suck the mirth right out of these pages, and we're left contemplating something much more profound. This is a city and a family pursuing manic growth as a way of ignoring their diverse and mounting crises. Mahajan is only 24 years old, but he has already developed an irresistible voice with a rich sense of humor fueled by sorrow.

Mark Budman has a good ear for sexual frustration and bittersweet comedy, too. His first novel, My Life at First Try, is the autobiographical story of a boy growing up in the old Soviet Union, where children and their parents struggle to keep a straight face (and their lives) amid the inane ideology of "sweet Grandfather Lenin." Budman begins when his main character, Alex, is 4 in 1954. He's an enthusiastic child already in love with stories and words, who sings about whatever he sees. His earliest memory is watching some tourists in his hometown in Moldova and deciding, "I want to be a foreigner."

As he grows up, that desire is stoked by letters and snapshots from a relative who lives in what sounds like imperial splendor in the United States. "The crown jewel" is his relative's 14-year-old daughter, Annie. "Her smile's like Mona Lisa's, only prettier," he rhapsodizes. "Above all, she's a genuine foreigner, born and raised. I can't take my eyes off her. I tell myself that I will find Uncle Michael when I immigrate to America and ask him to teach me how to grin. And then I will marry Annie." To prepare for that inevitable courtship, he perfects a few English phrases to woo her:

"How old are you?"

"Who is your favorite writer?"

"Are you oppressed by capitalists?"

He's an endearing narrator, who plunges into idiomatic English with a winning sense of fun at his own expense and just a touch of that wonderful Russian accent. "I'm an indestructible charm machine," he tells us, "smooth and naturally well-oiled." Through high school and then engineering college, he wages a "private war against the internal enemy -- my own virginity." Remarkably, even his old jumpsuit with "the too short sleeves" doesn't make him the chick magnet he hopes, but he still gets off on language. Girls are everywhere: "They smell like slowly ripening fruits," he tells us. "They are all rolling hills and hidden valleys. I've just recently discovered the highbrow word to describe them: nubile. It's an exotic, hot word. Nubile. Nubia. Labia."

This is a novel you don't want to stop reading, but it constantly stops anyway. Budman, who now lives in New York, publishes the Vestal Review, a literary magazine of very short stories called flash fiction, and he has constructed this book in the same spirit: four dozen separate pieces, most just two or three pages long. Each one begins with the year and Alex's age, e.g. "It's 1981, and I'm thirty-one."

Unfortunately, Budman's success with this form is uneven, and too many wonderful scenes seem truncated or prematurely abandoned when he breaks off for the next year. Also, this structure makes it impossible to develop other characters, as most of them are jettisoned immediately. The early stories about Alex's buoyant adolescence are delightful, but later chapters about working for a chemical plant or raising his family are sometimes prosaic, more like anecdotes, what might pass for a pleasant newspaper column. Too often, at the end of one of these brief chapters, you can feel Budman mugging for the camera or reaching for emotional impact with a stark ironical kicker that just can't deliver. In the best stories we can tell that he's better than this. If he would give himself the room he needs, he could write even flashier fiction. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.


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