Published July 15, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Since Communism's collapse in the late 1980s, Russian writers have been making up for lost time. Their fiction, as sampled in last year's "The Penguin Book of New Russian Writing," has quickly grown louder, ruder, more strange and experimental. As that book's editor, Victor Erofeyev, noted with pleasure, his country's bright young Turks are trying to distance themselves from the writers who let Soviet fiction become "a literature of lies and ignominy graced by piles of gibberish and graphomania that are unsurpassed examples of kitsch."

The only problem with "The Penguin Book of New Russian Writing" is that, with these writers, bile often overwhelms the tone in their own voices. Which is one reason it is such a joy to pick up "Omon Ra," the new novel by the 34-year-old Moscow writer Victor Pelevin. Sad, surreal and charmingly subversive, this fable about the Soviet space program is the best novel this book editor has read so far this year. Pelevin has style and sensibility to burn.

Related in the first-person voice of its protagonist (his name: Omon Ra), the novel is about a young boy who dreams of space flight, if only to escape his life's cramped realities and to go where "we all had our own little embassy up there in the cold pure blueness." When Omon Ra is eventually accepted to both flight school and the Soviet space program, Pelevin's gifts for cool satire kick in. (There is a brilliant scene in which Henry Kissinger, while visiting the USSR, requests to go bear hunting. In order to make sure he's satisfied, nervous bureaucrats order a soldier to wear a bear costume and proudly take a bullet for his country.) Young Omon Ra thinks his superiors must be kidding, too, when they tell him that his team's task will be to pilot an officially unmanned lunar vehicle to the moon. There, alone in the cosmos, he will have to kill himself.

With its potent, quixotic combination of political satire and very real feeling, "Omon Ra" calls to mind both "Catch 22" and "Catcher in the Rye." The book's final scenes -- of the space shot and its doomed men (boys, really) -- is a small masterpiece of joy, blind fear and bravery. "[H]ow could I know," Omon Ra asks, late in the book, "that you only ever see the best things in life out of the corner of your eye?"

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

MORE FROM Dwight Garner

Related Topics ------------------------------------------