A slice-of-Soviet-life `novel' by a former Moscow reporter

Fellow Travelers, by Alex Beam. New York: St. Martin's Press. 320 pp. $17.95. Alex Beam's first novel is not an especially good novel. But then, there's no reason it should be: Publisher's blurbs notwithstanding, it is not really a novel at all.

It is a fictionalized reporter's memoir, a collection of slices of Soviet life in which plot - what there is of it - often appears to serve as the equivalent of a newspaper feature editor's headlines, subheads, and cutlines.

But that having been said, ``Fellow Travelers'' is a wonderful book - a slim, artfully written volume that should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding the Soviet Russia that lies behind the daily headlines.

Beam is a fluent Russian-speaker who had spent considerable time in the Soviet Union (as son of an American ambassador and later as a guide for a touring US Information Service exhibit) before being posted in 1981 as Business Week's Moscow correspondent. (He left in 1984, to return to the United States as the magazine's Boston bureau chief.) Few other American journalists have equaled his flair for catching the hopes and fears, trials and ever-present joys, of everyday Russian life. So sharp was this talent that it surfaced even in his Business Week reports, not exactly a natural medium for slice-of-life writing. In ``Fellow Travelers,'' Beam has found a far more suitable vehicle.

``In some ways, our country must be one of the freest in the world!'' remarked a Soviet friend of mine near the end of my own three-year tour as Monitor correspondent in Moscow, a stint that coincided with Beam's. My friend meant by this that, despite the often oppressive constraints of the Soviet system, it has in many ways failed to dent many ordinary Russians' sense of humor and of the politically absurd; their love of life and of each other; their old-Russian extremes of emotion; and, of course, their endlessly inventive genius for cutting official corners.

It is this Soviet Russia that Beam has captured in ``Fellow Travelers.'' He does so by recounting the experiences of his first-person narrator, an American magazine correspondent, with an assortment of wonderfully true-to-life (and immensely likable) Russians, principally an iconoclastic Muscovite named Andrei. With this as its framework, the book moves from encounter to encounter, one area of Soviet Russian life to another, deftly interweaving bits of Russian folklore, history, religion, literature.

What emerges is not a complete portrait of the USSR - at least as nearly impossible a task as conveying ``the United States'' in such a volume. But Beam has provided a rare look at a side of Soviet Russia lost in the daily headlines, yet central to any real understanding of the country and its people.

Its spirit is caught best, perhaps, in two conversations Beam's narrator has on returning from his Moscow assignment. One is with Andrei's 'emigr'e relative, Aron, in which Perkins seeks to probe Aron's feelings about the country he has left behind. ``When I left, the choice was concrete,'' says Aron. ``Freedom versus oppression, opportunity versus, I don't know, going no farther.'' But yes, Aron does miss his Russian friends, relatives. ``There are no Russians outside Russia,'' he says. ``They're living for the present, that's why we miss them.''

The other conversation is with Perkins's editor. ``Reading your articles, I almost thought that you were - dare I say it? - happy'' in Russia.

``Dare I say it?'' replies Perkins, with an uneasy laugh. ``I think I was.''

``Fellow Travelers'' is - dare I say it? - an essentially happy book about Russia. This is what makes it so special, so indispensable a puzzle piece to any reader who would seek to understand the land of the Soviets.

Ned Temko was the Monitor's Moscow bureau chief from 1979 to 1983.

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