A Maine college professor once told me, "In Maine, if you and your parents were born in your town it is a strong point in your favor, but they don't really begin to trust you unless your grandparents were born there too." In the midst of this reputedly wary state, Willis Johnson, in his masterly collection, "The Girl Who Would Be Russian, and Other Stories," places an insular community of transplanted Russians who provide the cast for all of the book's seven stories.
"The Great Valentinova" sets the book's tone of sympathetic, often amused interest in the Russians. Marietta Valentinova is an aging ballerina who blames Tolstoy's fondness for the serfs for the Bolshevik revolution and considers herself a descendant of the high culture of czarist Russia. During a recital, after the audience has admired a young American balalaika player, Valentinova's own performance is ruined when a phonograph needle gets stuck on her accompanying record. Afterward, the crowd flocks to the young American while only one person, the American janitor, praises Valentinova's performance. Her defensive but very human ego leads her to conclude that only the janitor in this backwoods community has retained his taste.
In "The Ice Fish," Johnson develops themes important to the book: the distaste of these Russians for the current Soviet state and their futile hope for a return to the czarist days. Here, too, Johnson develops important recurring characters: Father Vladimir, suspected of being a Soviet spy; Maxim Maximovich, the real estate entrepreneur who brought most of the Russians to the fictitious Plankton; and Father Alexey, the 27-year-old American priest of the Church of Vasily the Blessed, who speaks halting Russian and labors under the double handicap of descending from Poles and Catholics.
Father Alexey becomes the protagonist of the next story, "Prayer for the Dying." Although the book is notably even in quality, this tale is perhaps the best in the collection, providing a touching contrast between Father Alexey's ministering to the dying Yakov Kaputin and the insensitivity of the fellow car passengers in whose company the priest rides to and from the hospital. The book's title story concerns 31-year-old Debbie Brown, qualified by birth to join the DAR, who wants to be Russian. Debbie first got the idea one night when, tipsy on vodka, she heard Russian music and quickly joined the orchestra as a balalaika player. Her deeper motivation is her wish to have an identity apart from the American herd and her romantic belief that the Russians have been made wiser and more worldly by a history of suffering. This story provides one of the book's few touches of sex. Debbie's mother, a proud, narrow woman, is peeved by Debbie's attraction to the Russians and especially by her daughter's playing the "bellyliker." She pushes Debbie into a match with an old high school classmate to whom Debbie slowly warms only to suffer a mild sexual assault. Debbie repulses the assault and then wanders, disheveled, toward a group of Russian graveside mourners who evade and flee from her because "among Americans were many who were dangerous and very often mad."
This is the first book-length fiction from Willis Johnson, but it is a ripe and expert collection. The author, a former journalist who worked for the Norwalk Hour and the Australian Broadcasting Commission, covered the Vietnam War for the Associated Press.
This journalistic training may be responsible for some of the book's strength. The writing style is crisp and tight. Johnson, though richly imaginative, takes few great risks; there is little of the dazzling originality of a Don DeLillo or brilliant wackiness of a Tom Robbins. Still, he offers us a controlled command of the clear, vivid sentence that, describing as it does these old world Russians with pathos, sometimes makes us almost feel as if we had wandered into Chekhov. Like Chekhov, Johnson achieves a mature muting of style to subject.
*Perhaps Johnson's greatest virtue is that his viewpoint characters are equally credible whether they are male or female, young or old, American or Russian. This suggests a writer whose finger is solidly on the pulse of the human condition. That kind of writer rewards our attention. By Andy Solomon; The reviewer directs the creative writing program at the University of Tampa.