Natasha and Other Stories
Standing as a post-Soviet point to David Sedaris, David Bezmozgis mines his childhood and family for material in this collection of short stories. But where Sedaris leavens his humor with pathos and poignancy, Bezmozgis takes the opposite approach. There’s enough humor in his tales to save them from being dour, but a quiet melancholy pervades the collection like a soft, unending rain.
Bezmozgis fictionalizes his Latvian émigré family into one called Berman, but keeps the time frame and locale—Toronto in the late ’70s and early ’80s—the same. The stories fall in a rough chronological order; Bezmozgis’ avatar, Mark, is a child in “Tapka,” the book’s opener, and a young adult by “Minyan,” the seventh and last story. His life is marked by losses, by failings of his own and others, by his difficult romance with his Judaism. Through it all, Bezmozgis pays careful attention to the immigrant experience, to what it means to have to choose what to cling to, and what to slowly, regretfully give up. But as heavy and sad as his stories are, they are not without hope and they show a keen observance of, if not love for, the world around him. And while Mark learns something valuable by the end of each of them, they are nothing so tiresome as object lessons.
In “Tapka,” Mark and his sister cause serious harm to come to the beloved dog of neighbors, fellow immigrants who have nothing else in the world. In “The Second Strongest Man,” he witnesses an old friend of his father, a giant in young Mark’s eyes, a hero, lose a weightlifting competition. In the title story, “Natasha,” his initiation into sex with his cousin by marriage ends in his unwitting betrayal of her and the loss of all his friends. We witness the death of his grandmother, the struggles of his father to make a life for his family, his grandfather’s desperate bid for an apartment he can afford. Despite the stories’ common tragedy, however, Bezmozgis successfully avoids a self-pitying or maudlin tone. He takes pains not to paint his parents as disappointments—life has dealt them a rough hand, but they bear it and slowly prosper. For a collection so fraught with misfortune, it’s remarkably free of blame, and it does manage to be funny, though the humor is of a wry, rueful sort.