By Paul Greenberg
Putnam. 247 pp. $24.95. Daniel, a sweet -- if indecisive -- young American, seems to be looking at a life with no prospects. His family is spectacularly strange. His divorced mother drinks scotch with continuous, solemn determination, his grown brother immerses himself in "Shape Shifter" comic books, and his father, on his fourth wife and sire of a nasty little 3-year-old, tries desperately to maintain the role of a responsible adult. Dad, who is nuttier than the proverbial fruitcake, scrambles for a precarious moral high ground as he implores Daniel to give up his "Russian phase."
For Daniel, for much of his life, has been in love with all things Russian. He took the language in college and, as "Leaving Katya" opens, is doing postgraduate work at the University of Leningrad. In truth, he has no practical skills and his Russian ranges from "broken" to "awful." But at the end of his Leningrad stay, he gets lucky, as Americans might put it, and finds himself in bed with Katya, a beautiful, sulky, resentful, whacked-out young woman who might have come out of a bad 19th-century Russian novel. She is something of a poor man's Grushenka.
After this one "magic evening," Daniel returns to America. He's just a wretched wreck. He and his brother support themselves doing temp work, while their mother sighs and drinks. In desperation, Daniel sends Katya a postcard. Then the worst happens. Katya takes him up on his vague invitation and comes to America. They get married. Daniel's brother punches him in the face for being such a fool.
Regardless of nationality, many readers will recognize the pages that follow from experiences of their own in a hysterically dysfunctional and nightmarish but somehow endearing very sick first marriage. It's all there: Daniel's simpleminded, hardhearted insistence on sex; Katya's surly remarks ("Do you enjoy destroying everything?," "You don't know anything about me") and her dire predictions that because Daniel's so awful, he's apt to be spending the rest of his life alone.
Daniel, for his part, delivers fist-shaking tirades about everything that he thinks might threaten their marriage and himself. These range from myriad phone calls placed by Russian immigrants of every stripe to his dwelling, to vague allusions by Katya to Mormons out in Utah, to his wife's later entrapment by a phony Indian cult in New Jersey. Daniel craves stasis; since he's so indecisive, he's terrified of any kind of change. Katya is driven to rebel, insult, test the poor guy at every turn. All this against a domestic background of milk-crate night tables, mother's old armoire from her failed marriage, bedsheet curtains and an extra-lively police station just across the street.
Poor Daniel! He knows -- at some level -- that he's rearranging deck chairs on the sinking Titanic (except that their poor little marriage is more like a leaky sloop). He knows he can't do anything right, so he keeps on doing everything wrong -- with gusto. You know the marriage is in trouble when, after Katya has announced that she is pregnant and is forcing him to move to an even more unattractive apartment in the far reaches of the Bronx, he discovers a missing tampon from her supposedly full box and dances out into the street to stop the movers, clutching fresh tampons in either hand, conducting an imaginary symphony.
Of course, they separate. Again, it's like so many excitable first romances, where a man and a woman run rapturously to each other but then somehow keep on running, unrapturously, past each other. Katya wants "America" and journeys to Utah. Daniel wants "Russia" and takes a hellish job that send him back to the country, where his fantasies finally clash with Russian reality: freezing weather, terrible service, bad food, and a vast assortment of Russian grievances that date back to the beginning of recorded time.
Have I said that this is a terribly funny novel? That there are moments in it we're all bound to recognize from the cheap assorted melodramas we acted out in our own twenties? Katya is absolutely impossible to live with; Daniel is absolutely impossible to live with. Each of them expects the matrimonial equivalent of the cosmic universe; they both end up with something like a can of cut-rate tuna. That this is not emblematic of this generation alone is beautifully presented to us by Daniel's father and his disgusting 3-year-old. You laugh out loud when you read this book.
And of course this romance reflects in miniature the larger, stormy relationship between America and the (former) Soviet Union. The United States bullied; the Soviets sulked. We loved each other in World War II, hated each other for the next 40 or 50 years, and now grudgingly allow as how we're both kind of cute and maybe the marriage is worth saving after all. Still, injustice is plastered all over our national relationship. America is rich, bossy and loud. The Russians can be seductive, exotic and hold grudges for centuries. We produced "Huckleberry Finn"; they gave Western culture "The Brothers Karamazov." We want things our way; they have a disconcerting tendency not to go along with our plans.
There's an extraordinary ring of authenticity to "Leaving Katya." The author's Russia, and his Russian characters, ring as true as his insane psychiatrist paterfamilias trying to hold on to his own sanity. Katya, for instance, has told Daniel dazzling tales of her family's summer house. When later he visits that fabled place, he finds a shack with a tin roof, a smell of fresh sewage and Katya's mother dicing potatoes in gloomy 100-percent humidity.
"Can't we all just get along?" Rodney King once famously queried. We can assume the poor guy has only the foggiest notion of the weirdness of human nature. No, we can't get along! We never have got along and we most probably never will, but at least we can laugh about it, as Paul Greenberg so deftly demonstrates here.