Natasha may be David Bezmozgis’ literary debut, but the author is no novice to storytelling. A graduate of USC Film School, he has made films about mohels in Los Angeles, law students in Toronto, and a boy who tries to rid himself of his enormous and magically indestructible nose.
Now, in these seven linked stories, Bezmozgis has focused his attention upon the Bermans, a family of Latvian-Jewish émigrés living in Toronto in the 1980s. Mark, our narrator, is seven years old when he comes to Toronto, so this is a somewhat unconventional immigration narrative; instead of describing a longing for the way things were, Bezmozgis delivers a child’s acute perception of the way things are. In the opening story, “Tapka,” Mark and his young cousin Jana have been entrusted with the responsibility of caring for their Russian neighbors’ beloved dog. Tapka is her owners’ sole link to Russia, the only thing in their lives that isn’t new. Mark and Jana quickly become smitten with the dog, and, like most lovers, they look for signs that their love is requited. Tapka lets them pet her endlessly, she can’t wait to go on walks, she retrieves her toy for them without fail, but none of this is enough. “Proof could only come in one form,” Mark tells us. “We had intuited an elemental truth: love needs no leash.” Thus Bezmozgis opens the door to loss and misery, and he leads us through it with painful realism.
As the collection progresses, we get a sense for what it means to be a Russian-Jewish family among Canadians. In “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” the Bermans make a visit to the house of a Jewish doctor, in the hope that Dr. Kornblum will refer patients to Mark’s massage- therapist father. But when they arrive, they find that Kornblum and his wife have no interest in talking about the massage business; instead, they’re voyeuristically interested in hearing about the persecution the Bermans suffered in Russia. In the course of the evening, Mark glimpses the difficult-to-fathom economic gap between this Canadian family and his own. While the adults talk, he’s sent to a downstairs playroom with Simon, another Russian boy.This playroom belongs to the hosts’ children, who don’t actually appear in the scene; their toys say it all: ping-pong, a pool table, big-screen TV, board games, books, all the Star Wars figures, including Ewoks. “What doesn’t this rich bastard have?” Simon asks, as he stuffs an R2D2 doll down his pants.
Pervasive in the collection is the idea of upward mobility, expressed in the Bermans’ move from an apartment to a semidetached house, and from semidetached to fully detached, the ne plus ultra of suburban living. As they progress through this series of increasingly comfortable houses, we sense that they are moving further and further away from their country of origin. But Russia can never really be left behind; oftentimes it appears in the form of characters who have not managed to emigrate yet, or characters whose ties to Russia are fresher than the Bermans’.
In many of these stories, Mark’s interactions with other characters serve to point out his own (bravely realistic) failings of generosity, maturity, coolness, empathy, and wit. In every story Bezmozgis makes us feel his narrator’s shame and frustration as our own.This is a stunning first collection, characterized by painful honesty and clarity of vision. In seeking comparisons to other writers, one keeps coming back to another fine writer of Russian extraction, Nikolai Gogol. Like Gogol, Bezmozgis is acutely aware of his characters’ shortcomings; as Gogol does, Bezmozgis writes with compassion, quietly reminding us of the hidden beauty within human imperfection.