Eating latkes in Toronto

David Bezmozgis' extraordinary stories about life as an Eastern European immigrant in Canada deserve the praise lavished on them this summer. And I ought to know.

Topics: Fiction, Canada, Books,

This is the summer of Bezmozgis. Short-fiction debuts have lately demanded at least one young discovery per season — last summer belonged to Nell Freudenberger, with her collection “Lucky Girls” and the wild sum of her advance — a phenomenon that implies books arent worth our time unless they make headlines. Accordingly, this year we have the novelty of David Bezmozgis, a Canadian whose stories made it into Harper’s, the New Yorker and Zoetrope nearly simultaneously, while positive reviews poured in from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and others. As a Canadian myself, I know how extraordinary it is for a young writer north of the 49th parallel to gain attention — any attention — south of it. (And among other things it helps cement one’s celebrity in Canada; only after the New Yorker anointed Alice Munro did her fellow Canadians take notice.)

The extraordinary thing about Bezmozgis is that his work deserves the unanimous praise it’s gotten. The seven stories in “Natasha” are (mostly) so classical in their form and restraint that all the critical attention they’ve received suggests reviewers have been quietly pining for linear narratives strung together along a linear arc and told with a bit of reticence. The stories follow their narrator, Mark Berman, from the age of 6, when he and his parents arrive in Toronto as a troika of Jewish Latvian refugees, to some indefinite point in Marks adulthood (a similar storyline happens to belong to Bezmozgis himself). The result is less a bildungsroman than a series of fragments lighting up a whole social and historical landscape behind the central character.

The first story here is the finest, if only on the strength of its ending. “Tapka” tells of the Bermans’ earliest days in Canada, living in an immigrant neighborhood “delirious with striving.” The family befriends a Russian couple named Misha and Rita Nahumovsky, who live in their building. Here as elsewhere, Bezmozgis with perfect moderation and zero judgment exposes what turns out to be a weirdly distasteful reality: “Our life was tough, we had it hard — but the Nahumovskys had it harder. They were alone, they were older, they were stupefied by the demands of language. Being essentially helpless themselves, my parents found it gratifying to help the more helpless Nahumovskys.”

That’s the first of many passages I glossed with a “Yes” in the margin. I happen to share some of Berman/Bezmozgis’ biographical coordinates: I was 6 when my family arrived in Toronto in the early 1980s, four Czech refugees who soon found more helpless refugees around us. Most of the similarities end there, yet it’s a mark of Bezmozgis’ achievement that at times his observations seem so true that I’m almost convinced my family also lived through them. On the incremental nature of upward mobility: “Between our apartment and a fully detached house loomed the intermediate town house and the semidetached house.” On the strained sightseeing that occurs when fresh immigrants try to show off their surroundings to visitors from the old country: “I kept talking and talking even though I could tell that what I was showing and what he was seeing were not the same things.” On conforming to a Hebrew school’s vegetarian lunch rules when you are Latvian or Russian: “Our mothers couldn’t comprehend why anyone would choose to eat peanuts in a country that didn’t know what it meant to have a shortage of smoked meat.” Besides being perceptive and wise, this is often a very funny book.

And so back to “Tapka”: Young Mark falls in love with the Nahumovskys’ eponymous little white dog. He and his cousin Jana are entrusted with Tapka’s care while the Nahumovskys are at work, and at first the two little kids are paragons of responsibility and affection. But eventually their English improves: “That first spring, even though most of what was said around me remained a mystery, a thin rivulet of meaning trickled into my cerebral catch basin and collected into a little pool of knowledge.”

Without getting too Old Testament about it, knowledge is acquired and somebody gets hurt — Tapka gets hurt, and the families don’t have enough money to pay for her surgery. Rita Nahumovsky is inconsolable. And this is where Bezmozgis transcends his wry, understated style and ends the story on a wonderfully strange note: The Nahumovskys are crumpled in the hallway of the veterinary hospital, swaying and weeping, and out of sympathy Tapka’s doctor joins them. All three sway together on the floor. Suddenly there follows a dialogue between Mark and “the swaying,” regarding the fate of Tapka and the guilt of Mark. That’s it. It’s one of the best endings Ive read in a long, long time; it made me shudder to imagine being on either end of the conversation.

The other stories show us Mark’s parents adjusting to life in Canada; Mark dealing with (or failing to deal with) his Jewishness by becoming the school bully; and Mark discovering sex, via his 14-year-old cousin Natasha. The plots here are very simple: Mostly the stories deal with minor events that raise characters’ hopes only to disappoint them. In “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” Mark’s dad struggles to gain a professional footing in Canada; a few stories on, we’re simply told that his massage business eventually picked up and the family graduated to a bigger house.

But it’s not the plotlines that make these stories so compelling; it’s the perfect details of the characters’ behavior combined with the narrator’s cool and occasionally arch tone. Mark doesn’t flinch from much. In “Natasha,” the longest story here, he peels apart his own motivations during the course of his first love affair and does a good job of training his eye on things as diverse as pornography, the culture of suburban drug-dealing, and the strange effect Russia in the 1990s had on the character of its citizens. In the story, either Natasha’s mother is a monster or the girl is a manipulative Lolita — the beauty of it is that we’re never told what to believe. All we know, in the end, is that Mark’s Rilkean conclusion rings true. He feels betrayed by the girl and decides to literally put himself in her place, gazing down into his own basement from a backyard window: “In the full light of summer, I looked into darkness. It was the end of my subterranean life.”

Perhaps to balance the classic simplicity of his plots, Bezmozgis has mastered the well-timed segue. Most of these stories hinge on a single moment of change that propels the rest of the action: In “Tapka,” it was that line about Mark’s “cerebral catch basin” that brought on catastrophe. In “The Second Strongest Man,” Mark describes in detail how Romans career as a weight trainer, back home in Riga, was endangered for political reasons — when we are suddenly dropped into a fresh reality: “The next day my father discovered Sergei Federenko.”

In “An Animal to the Memory,” in which Mark unsuccessfully tries to persuade his mother to take him out of Hebrew school, the hinge moment is a gorgeous non sequitur: “My mother was resolute. Nothing I said helped my case. So that April, just after Passover, I put Jerry Ackerman in the hospital.” You feel as if Bezmozgis has grabbed the hem of the tablecloth and whipped it off without rippling the wine in your glass. It’s a simple thing, a classic storyteller’s trick. But you want to keep reading in case he pulls it off again.

Jana Prikryl is a freelance writer in New York.

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