Natasha and Other Stories

by David Bezmozgis

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

147 pages, 2004



From Russia With Hope

Reviewed by David Abrams


Roman Berman, his wife and their son emigrate from Latvia to Toronto in 1980 with "no English, no money, no job and only a murky conception of what the future held." In the course of the seven stories that comprise David Bezmozgis' debut collection, Natasha, we'll witness the Bermans slowly, painfully assimilate into North American culture, mainly through the eyes of the son, Mark.

He's six years old in the first story, "Tapka," in which he and a cousin are put in charge of dog-sitting a Russian neighbor's beloved Lhasa Apso. Things do not go well -- the dog runs into traffic -- and the story concludes with a hard, crunchy epiphany (which seems a bit deep for a six-year-old mind): "There is reality and then there is truth."

There's plenty of both in Bezmozgis' fiction, too. So much truth, in fact, that the collection reads like thinly-veiled autobiography. Like Mark, Bezmozgis was born in Latvia and moved to Toronto when he was six. He writes with authority about dislocation and assimilation.

In "The Second Strongest Man," we watch patriarch Roman, "a struggling massage therapist and schlepper of chocolate bars," get a temporary job as a judge for an international weightlifting championship. Two of the competitors are old friends, but when he goes to meet them at their hotel, he bumps into a KGB agent, also an old acquaintance, who is there to make sure the athletes get back on the plane to Russia. The scene is nicely balanced between tension and compassion:

The agent was surprised to see my father -- Roman Abramovich, you're here? I didn't see you on the plane.

My father explained that he hadn't taken the plane. He lived here now. A sweep of my father's arm defined "here" broadly. The sweep included me. My jacket, sneakers, and Levi's were evidence. Roman Abramovich and his kid lived here. The KGB agent took an appreciative glance at me. He nodded his head.

-- You're living well?

-- I can't complain.

-- It's a beautiful country. Clean cities. Big forests. Nice cars. I also hear you have good dentists.

Bezmozgis subtly captures the joy, frustration and fear of what it was like to be a Soviet refusenik in the 1980s.

The linked stories follow Mark into adulthood, but the best of the bunch is the titular story which finds the boy at the crossroads of his hormone-fueled teenage years. In "Natasha," 16-year-old Mark lives in the basement where he smokes hash, watches television, reads and masturbates. When his 14-year-old cousin Natasha arrives and he's given the job of keeping her occupied during the summer, he's surprised to find the tables turned on him when she casually removes her clothes and plops down in his beanbag chair.

She turned to me and said, very simply, as if it were as insignificant to her as it was significant to me: Do you want to? At sixteen, no expert but no virgin, I lived in a permanent state of want to.

With the experienced Natasha ("I've done it a hundred times") as his teacher, Mark soon learns that sex "could be as perfunctory as brushing your teeth." The story culminates with a string of sentences that tie the preceding 10,000 words together with something akin to a symphonic timpani-roll/cymbal-crash. After Natasha turns the tables on him yet again, a devastated but determined Mark returns to his house:

I saw my future clearly. I had it all planned out. And yet, standing in our backyard, drawn by a strange impulse, I crouched and peered through the window into my basement. I had never seen it from this perspective. I saw what Natasha must have seen every time she came to the house. In the full light of summer, I looked into darkness. It was the end of my subterranean life.

It's moments like this which lift Natasha and Other Stories beyond the ordinary and into the realm of heart-stopping art. Bezmozgis times his delivery with the precision of a watchmaker.

On the whole, there's nothing flashy about the stories; the sentences move forward with steady, unadorned purpose and the full effect of Bezmozgis' talent doesn't sink in until hours after you've stopped reading. Yet, there's something compelling and earnest that lies invisible at the heart of this family portrait. It's the faith that helps us overcome hardship and gives us hope that we can ascend from the dark basement of our lives. | June 2004


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.