- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 5, 2004

In the title story of David Bezmozgis’ arresting debut collection, the eponymous Natasha, newly arrived in Toronto from Russia and worldly-wise beyond her 14 years, informs our 16-year-old narrator, Mark Berman, that she is sexually available.

Natasha is the daughter of a brassy woman who has just become the wife of Mark’s intelligent but unworldly uncle. Mark’s mother nervously hopes that Zina will be good for Uncle Fima: “Maybe she was a little aggressive, but to make it in this country you couldn’t apologize at every step like him.”

And at Fima’s age, it’s only to be expected that a potential wife might well have a teenaged child. “Meet your new cousin,” Mark is told. So Natasha’s proposal takes him by surprise, to say the least:

“—We’re cousins.

—No we’re not.

—Your mother married my uncle.

—It’s too bad. He’s nice.

—He is.

—I feel sorry for him. She’ll ruin his life.

—It’s hard to imagine his life getting worse.

—She’ll make it worse.

—She’s your mother.

—She’s a whore. Do you want to know how it sounds when they do it?

—Not particularly.

—They do it at least three times a day. He groans like he is being killed and she screams like she is killing him.”

“Natasha” is the fifth of seven linked stories depicting the woefully comic travails of the Bermans, a family of Jewish immigrants from Latvia making a new life for themselves in Canada.

Like Mark Berman, David Bezmozgis, the author of these stories, was born in Riga in 1973 and immigrated with his parents to Toronto in 1980. The stories, like a series of snapshots in a photo album, are drawn from over two decades, taking Mark from the first grade into adulthood.

In the opening story, six-year-old Mark falls in love with “Tapka,” a playful white Lhasa apso who is the cherished pet of a childless Russian couple living in their building. But in testing the limits of the dog’s seemingly boundless devotion, he comes to know the pain and remorse that can come with love.

Back in Riga, Mark’s father, Roman, had worked for the ministry of sport. The second story chronicles his efforts to quit his unrewarding job at a candy factory and establish himself in his newly adopted country as “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist.”

In the story that follows, the Bermans are visited by Roman’s old friend and former protege Sergei, a champion weightlifter whose extraordinary powers, alas, are waning. For Mark, seeing the object of his hero-worship contending with the diminution of his strength is a sobering encounter with the inevitable sorrows of mutability.

Mr. Bezmozgis deftly evokes the many complex components of the immigrant experience: the mingled hopes, fears, and uncertainties; the difficulties of trying to learn a new language; even the pathetic snobbery of immigrants looking down on other immigrants, investing minor shades of difference with exaggerated social significance.

Then there are the Bermans’ ever-present anxieties about anti-Semitism. In “An Animal to the Memory,” the story that precedes “Natasha,” an adolescent Mark, made to go to Hebrew school to placate his mother, finds himself more strongly moved than he’d expected to be by the histrionic performance of the rabbi.

The final two stories show a grown-up Mark coping with the decline of his grandparents. In many ways, these are the most impressive stories in an already impressive collection. Although Mr. Bezmozgis is only in his early thirties, he displays a remarkable, almost uncanny, degree of empathy, compassion, indeed, wisdom in his treatment of old age.

In “Choynski,” he skillfully interweaves the story of Mark’s search for information about a legendary boxer of bygone days, “America’s first great fighting Jew,” with a poignant account of his grandmother’s last illness:

“My grandmother said tank you to the doctor and repeated the word hoff several times. Her English wasn’t very good and I didn’t think the doctor’s Yiddish was good enough to understand that the word she incanted meant hope.”

Mark’s quest to learn more about heavyweight Joe Choynksi (a.k.a. “Chrysanthemum Joe,” “Little Joe,” “the Professor,” “the California Terror”), one of nature’s true gentlemen, conversant with Shakespeare, a friend to blacks, alleged inventor of the left hook, brings him to the San Francisco apartment of an aging sportswriter.

Yet even as Mark is working to salvage what little is known or remembered about Choynski, mortality is stalking the people in his immediate vicinity: not only his grandmother, but the sportswriter, who seems to have no living relatives except for an estranged son, whom Mark sets out to locate.

Mark’s grandparents are observant Jews who have managed to keep a faith that is no longer shared by family members of the next generation: “… during the war they all saw miracles — which meant they remained alive while Germans died. God proved himself to them even though there was more of the same kind of evidence against him.”

In the sportswriter’s case, differences over religion seem implicated in the estrangement between the son, a born-again Christian, and the father, who intensely dislikes his son’s brand of faith.

Mr. Bezmozgis captures a sense of how variations on this theme keep cropping up in one’s experience. Better still, his story powerfully conveys the emotional bond between Mark and his grandmother.

After the loss of his wife, Mark’s grandfather moves in to a subsidized housing project inhabited by elderly Jews of various stripes: Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian; scholars and cabdrivers, atheists, believers, and everything in between.

Yet despite the number of Jews in the building, barely enough of them go to the on-site one-room synagogue to provide the 10-man “Minyan” needed to conduct the weekly services. As a regular, lifelong shul-goer, Mark’s grandfather proves a valuable addition to the community:

“Three Russians who didn’t understand Hebrew sat in the back of the synagogue. One was missing an arm. Two Polish Jews sat in front of them. One had his place by the partition so that he could stretch his bad leg, the other kept his walker near for emergency trips to the washroom.

“I was between them and the front row where my grandfather sat with two other men. Herschel, a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania, sat beside my grandfather, and Itzik, a taxi driver from Odessa, sat beside Herschel. Zalman was at a small table beside the ark.

“On the other side of the partition were half a dozen women. There was no rabbi and so the responsibilities for the service were divided between Zalman, my grandfather, and Herschel. The task of lifting the heavy scrolls fell to me, as I was the only one with the strength to do it.

“The Saturday morning services started at nine and lasted for three hours. Most of the old Jews came because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences. I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case, the motivation was not tradition but history.”

The unlikely friendship between the bookish, impractical Herschel and the wily, resourceful Itzik becomes an object of speculation and gossip among the building’s residents.

Such odd connections and off-key events, along with their place in the larger world around them, are the stuff of which Mr. Bezmozgis’ fiction is made. Less stagy and hell-bent on the zany and the cute than Isaac Bashevis Singer’s, these unsentimental but touching stories portend a notable career.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic living in Pasadena, Calif.

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