"Petropolis" by Anya Ulinich; Viking; 325 pages; $25.
Life in Asbestos 2, a dreary, crumbling Siberian town in the dreary, crumbling Soviet Union, wasn't going to hold back young Sasha Goldberg. Not if her mother had anything to say about it, and her mother had something to say about everything.
"Children of the intelligentsia don't just come home in the afternoon and engage in idiocy," she tells her daughter. Two problems: 1) The Goldbergs' membership in the intelligentsia existed entirely in Mrs. Goldberg's head, and 2) just coming home in the afternoon and engaging in idiocy was pretty much what Sasha, no girl genius and a long shot at best for the intelligentsia, had as a vague plan for the rest of her life.
In the opening pages of "Petropolis," Ulinich's darkish but never quite black comic novel, we learn that 14-year-old Sasha has so far failed at her mother's attempts to make her into a figure skater ("the instructor delicately described her daughter as overweight and uncoordinated") and a violinist ("three consecutive violin instructors declared Sasha profoundly tone deaf and musically uneducable. 'A bear stepped on her ear,' Mrs. Goldberg explained to the neighbors").
'PETROPOLIS' - 'Petropolis,' by Anya Ulinich, is described as a coming-of-age story of a less-than-promising protagonist. CNS Photo.
Next stop: art school, which at least engages Sasha's interest, if not her nonexistent talent. She hangs around long enough to get pregnant via a fellow student's wastrel brother, who lives in an apartment fashioned from a capped-off half-pipe at the edge of a dump. Ah, the good ol' Worker's Paradise.
Soon thereafter, the landscape blurs as author Ulinich engineers a startling segue by shifting into a kind of prose hyperdrive, whizzing through the birth of Sasha's daughter and Sasha's sojourn to an art school in Moscow. The engine idles briefly at a bridal agency, through which Sasha snags the first schlub to wander by, then re-engages and deposits her in a stark, chilled apartment somewhere in a flat, sun-blasted nowhereland: Phoenix.
What follows is a phantasmagoric series of flash-cut images of a wildly varied United States of America, as Shasha reels from place to place like a flung flat rock bounding across the surface of choppy water. It doesn't take her long to skip out on her not-really-legal marriage to clueless Neal and hover briefly among fellow Russian immigrants on the seedy side of Chicago. A connection lands her in a post as a pampered housekeeper's assistant in a suburban mansion, where her real job is to appear at fundraisers and serve as the lady of the house's "pet Soviet Jew."
Meanwhile, she's searching halfheartedly for her father, who fled to America - from his wife and from Soviet oppression in about equal measure, apparently - and disappeared years ago. He landed in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the American Dream found him and yanked him aboard by discovering that he had a real talent for fashioning dental plates. Sasha will of course get there eventually - and maybe even reclaim her daughter, languishing back in Asbestos 2 with grandma.
First-time novelist Ulinich, who emigrated to the United States at 17, trained as a graphic designer and received an MFA in painting, and boy, does it show. Her USSR and USA are awash in colors and images prismed through an alien sensibility, then focused by literary art:
"In the car, Vitaly Sergeevich lights a cigarette, flicks the ashes out the window. The traffic is heavy on Devon, and Sasha has time to soak up the sights: the Salvation Army, the bank, the Dunkin' Donuts. She wants to remember every detail. The collection of landscapes in her head is the only thing she safely owns. Out of the corner of her eye, she looks at Vitaly Sergeevich. He's wearing one of his murky green suits and a maroon tie. The awful colors give his face an unhealthy tint. Sasha tries to imagine what Vitaly Sergeevich had been like before he turned into Vitaly Sergeevich.
"A young man with a full head of hair, in a gnarly seventies sweater.
"A skinny child wielding a hockey stick in an orderly Brezhnev-era yard.
"A fat toothless baby from a 1950s magazine cover, sitting in an enamel basin, one curly forelock sticking straight up.
"The baby lifts his dimpled hands, knowing nothing of what his life will become, what his hands will look like covered in graying yellow hair, on the steering wheel of a Crown Victoria."
Sneakily, "Petropolis" turns out to be the coming-of-age story of a less-than-promising protagonist - which of course makes it all the more affecting. That Ulinich, a native Russian speaker, wrote the novel in such assured, glasslike English, however, makes it somewhat annoying: Where does she get off, anyway? You'd think she was a member of the intelligentsia or something.