Short stories are in danger of becoming the poems of 21st-century literature — the parts of august publications like Harper’s, The Atlantic and The New Yorker that fewer and fewer people read. (The poems themselves they barely see.) After all, it’s hard for the short story to compete for the reader’s attention alongside movie reviews, eyewitness dispatches from Baghdad, and the latest pictures of grinning American torturers. But in recent years somebody — Jhumpa Lahiri, Nathan Englander, Adam Haslett — has always managed to make a splash with a collection of short stories. This year it’s the turn of David Bezmozgis, a 30-year-old Canadian writer whose family emigrated from Latvia in 1980, when he was 6.
Bezmozgis’ writing is classical, straightforward and sharply observed. Within a couple of paragraphs of “Tapka,” the first of Natasha’s seven short stories, you know you’re in the hands of an unusually capable writer. The hero, Mark Berman (presumably a stand-in for the author), is 6, and his parents, Bella and Roman, have just immigrated to Toronto from Latvia. “Each morning, with our house key hanging from a brown shoelace around my neck,” Bezmozgis writes, “I kissed my parents goodbye and, along with my cousin Jana, tramped across the ravine — I to the first grade, she to the second. At three o’clock, bearing the germs of a new vocabulary, we tramped back home.”
It’s a phrase like “the germs of a new vocabulary,” redolent of runny noses and viral classrooms, that tells you how good Bezmozgis is. In the second story, Roman, who was an athletics instructor in Latvia, attempts to set himself up in Toronto as a professional masseur. Bezmozgis describes him sitting at home as he waits for the first customer to call. “The phone would ring and he would leap. My mother would leap after him — her ear millimeters away from his exposed ear, listening, as if my father’s head was itself the telephone. She listened as friends called, other friends called, my aunt called and called. Everybody called to see whether anybody had called.”
A collection of seven loosely linked short stories, Natasha reads like a novel with several chapters missing. By the fifth, title story, Mark is already 16, a veteran of schoolyard fist fights and Holocaust-heavy lessons in North American Jewish identity, and a disenchanted stoner who deals drugs as his summer job. Beyond his name, he bears only a fleeting resemblance to the 6-year-old boy we were introduced to in the opening story, or even the 12-year-old in the third story. But then, isn’t this true of most people? By presenting us with snapshots of Mark’s development, rather than a continuous narrative, Bezmozgis makes us newly aware of just how mysterious and seemingly random character formation can be.
But Mark isn’t really the subject of the stories. He is an observer-participant, as bound to the lives of his parents and grandparents as they are to the habits of the country they left behind. In “The Second Strongest Man,” which is about as close to perfection as short stories get, an international weightlifting competition is held at the Toronto Convention Center. The Russian team is well known to Roman, who once tutored its star athlete, Sergei, the strongest man in the world in his weight class when the competition begins, but only the second-strongest by its end. In Latvia, he was Mark’s childhood hero; and now, years later in Toronto, he teaches Mark an early lesson in age and vulnerability as he loses to a younger Russian challenger who breaks his world record. The story also provides a fascinating glimpse into the relations between ex-Soviets who escaped the USSR by emigrating and those who came to the West for brief visits, chaperoned by KGB agents. Roman buys off the agent shadowing Sergei by finding him a dentist, who cures him of a maddening toothache. “Remember, you always have a friend in Moscow,” the grateful agent tells Roman afterward. “Visit anytime.” A KGB joke.
“Minyan,” the final story in the volume and perhaps the most moving, recounts how two old Jewish widowers are shunned by their community after they move in with each other. The suspicion is that they are homosexual survivors of sham marriages, but it seems equally likely that they decided to live together simply because they were lonely. When one of them, Itzik, dies, the survivor, Herschel, is effectively widowed all over again. At the funeral, he limps to the front of the synagogue to deliver the eulogy, but, writes Bezmozgis, “his worn tweed jacket and crooked back delivered a eulogy before he reached the coffin. His posture was unspeakable grief. What could he say that would compare with the eulogy of his wretched back?”
The endings to “Choynski,” about the death of Mark’s grandmother, and “An Animal to the Memory,” about learning “what it means to be a Jew,” feel forced; and the stories can be almost too neat, as if they were petitioning to go straight into the anthologies. But there are some Chekhov stories that feel as if they were dashed off in 10 minutes, and that casual, improvised quality is what keeps them lively a century later. Jewish immigrant literature is strewn with such stellar names as Bellow and Malamud and Roth and Singer and Babel, and Bezmozgis has worked hard to show that he belongs in the same company. If a certain self-consciousness is the inevitable result, it’s a small price to pay for such a rewarding and promising collection.
NATASHA AND OTHER STORIES | By DAVID BEZMOZGIS
Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 147 pages | $18 hardcover