David Bezmogis, who was recently named one of The New Yorker's 20 writers under 40 to watch, delivers a dark but sharply funny first novel, The Free World (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 354 pp.) There are no soaring Neil Diamond anthems or immigrant idealism for the Krasnanskys, a family of Soviet Jews from Latvia who find themselves stranded in Italy in the late 1970s. Even an involuntary plane layover is enough to give me the jitters, so it's no surprise the Krasnanskys grapple in different ways with the uncomfortable limbo of the country-less.
“There was no limit, it seemed, to Polina's sense of dislocation. The border crossing at Chop had been nightmarish, but at least the nightmare had conformed to some perverted Soviet logic. What was cruel and nonsensical about it was cruel and nonsensical in a typical way.... Compared to Rome, all that proceeded seemed mild and rational.”
Patriarch Samuil is still mourning his brother, who was killed during World War II; elder son Karl gets involved in a shady chop shop in an effort to provide for his wife and sons until their papers come through; while feckless and irritating younger brother Alec ignores Polina, his new wife, in favor of a newly arrived teenager.
There's a violent climax that's oddly unconvincing, but Bezmogis is best when he's delivering dryly hilarious lines, like one acquaintance's goals for the future: “So far I’ve been a citizen of two utopias. Now I have modest expectations. Basically, I want the country with the fewest parades.”