Jack Womack's Russia: The future doesn't work

April 07, 1996|By Jeff Danziger | Jeff Danziger,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Let's Put the Future Behind Us," by Jack Womack. Atlantic Monthly Press. 322 pages. $22 Jack Womack's sixth novel is a very funny, very cold book. The setting is post-Communist Moscow, waking after the long freeze of the Soviet state, waking up starving.

Coming into the wildness of uncontrolled capitalism, Moscow is a roaring mess of greed and gangs who make a mockery of the government.

Our hero, Max Borodin, is a fixer, able to arrange documentation of nearly anything. Trust in bureaucracy has survived the collapse, but Max can get the paperwork done for you in time.

Mr. Womack is not the first person to make sport of the fact that when, after years of oppression, men are at last given the freedom to write and speak their minds, they usually prefer to make money. The Russians are now not reading the long-denied Solzhenitzyn novels, they are watching Mexican television novellas.

The children, freed from the strict Marxist brain-control schools, are not studying truth, they are carrying guns and apprenticing to be salesmen of cheap imported products. Beggars are everywhere, freed from the evils of socialism. The details of this new Russian life are painful to contemplate, especially when described this well. Life is brutal and cold, every man for himself and God against all.

Max is a busy man. His maniacal brother attempts to build a theme park hysterically modeled on the memory of Soviet life ("... staff will be surly and unpleasant ..." ) Then there's his wife's investment in a commercial crematorium, a real cash cow, and his burgeoning links with New York.

Bloodthirstiness erupts on a level that makes Yeltsin's treatment of Grozny seem restrained. People with automatic weapons go nuts under the influence of cheap vodka and Milton Friedman. There are horrible murders, at the same time the Russian character remains in all its weepy, emotional, self-pitying grandeur, rationalizing its failures and its Oblomov inertia.

In between outrageous plot twists and point-blank strafings, there is comic relief: In the media appeared reports such as could only appear in our matchless country, "We regret we are unable to give you the weather. We rely on weather reports from the airports which are closed because of weather. Whether we are able to give you the weather tomorrow depends on the weather."

Max's enterprises are challenged by the Georgian Mafia in the final battle. The Moscow pet market is turned into the OK Corral by warring gangs,

Remarkably, the book has the tone of being told by a Russian, although Mr. Womack says he has only been there once in his life in 1992. He has captured the curious Russian combination of bombast and courage and put them into this brave new world order of tooth-and-claw free enterprise.

Max Borodin may well be more of an archetype than even his creator suspects, armed to the teeth and backed by hoodlum bodyguards, driving around Moscow making up the rules of the new capitalism as he goes, his cell phone in one pocket and a roll of American twenties in the other. It's a Russian Bonfire of the Vanities.

Jeff Danziger, editorial cartoonist for the Christian Science Monitor, is the author of the novel "Rising Like the Tucson" (1992). He was editorial cartoonist at the New York Daily News for three years.

Pub date: 04/07/96

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