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Mark Budman

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My Life at First Try
by Mark Budman   

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Literary Fiction

Publisher:  Counterpoint Press ISBN-10:  158243400X Type: 


ISBN-13:  9781582434001

Barnes &

This semi-autobiographical debut novel chronicles the life of Alex, born in Siberia in 1950, and his dreams of becoming a writer and of meeting Annie, his distant American cousin. As a child, Alex observes a group of foreign tourists do something that non-drunk Soviet adults seldom do: they laugh. Alex yearns to become one of them—a free and happy foreigner. Those aspirations quickly fade as Alex begins to encounter the absurdities and constraints of living in a society where conformity is institutionalized. Hilarious and sometimes sobering, the book’s short chapters chronicle making it through the army, mastering the English language, sex, and meeting the girl of his dreams. In 1980, Alex and his young family finally get the chance to move to America. There he realizes that he is finally a foreigner—not the happy foreigner of his dream, but an alien. Ultimately, Alex finds his own place in the world, despite the fact that having the right “to vote for an elephant or an ass” does not necessarily guarantee self-fulfillment.

 A novel in flash stories.

It’s 1957. I am seven. We are not slaves. Slaves are not us. Even in Russian, a language with a more forgiving grammar than English, that second sentence is barely grammatical. Yet Idea Vasil’evna, our first grade teacher, forces us to write it in our notebooks. She has no choice. It’s printed in our textbooks. What’s written by a pen can’t be struck out by an ax.

We dip our pens into the inkwells, stick our tongues out and write, “?-?-?-? . . .” I hate how the ink smells—like scarlet fever. The pigtails of the girl in front of me beg to be pulled but I restrain myself. I’m a man.

We know that we live in a Socialist society, but we are ready for the next step in the path of progress. That’s what Idea Vasil’evna said before the class began. She is wise and motherly.

She drums the beat on her desk with a ruler. Occasionally, she goose-steps the aisles, and cranes her neck to check our progress. When she does that, our hands shake. She hits the boys on the fingers with the ruler and returns to her desk. She never hits the girls. Their fingers are delicate, like ivory netsuke, and their tears shoot out too easily. She smells like the perfume store, only stronger.

Above the teacher’s desk, sweet Grandfather Lenin observes us with glee. If he could, he would jump out from his gilded frame, take away Idea Vasil’evna’s ruler, and drum our fingers with it. He would never spare the girls.

His portrait is off-center, and next to it, there is a painted-over spot. Kids say that it had Stalin’s portrait hanging there once. A few years before, these leaders would have jumped out together, and divided the responsibilities. Joseph, you go to the right, and I will take the left. Don’t spare the rod, Joseph.

Joseph would nod, grinning under his sardonic mustache. Afterwards, back in his frame, he would light a pipe. Lenin would squint like a tomcat with the belly full of mice.

But now, Lenin is lonely.

The bell rings. We run into the schoolyard, which is surrounded by a heavy iron fence. We scream. We jump up and down. We chase each other. Two older boys, maybe even sixth graders, get into a fistfight, and we watch. One boy falls and the other kicks him in the ribs. The school principal comes out and positions himself by the gates. He looks like a statue in the town square, but without a horse. Iron face. Endless shoulders. A raised hand. His clothes are the color of dust. Does he have shiny, polished balls like the horse in the square? He coughs into a bullhorn. Everyone quiets, even the boy on the ground. The principal speaks.

I can make out only some words. Party. Lenin. Happy childhood. American imperialism. Five-year plan. When I grow up, I will draw posters and write big words with a red pen.

Yesterday, I saw a group of foreign tourists in downtown. They stood so straight and laughed loudly like kids, as if no one was watching them. They were dressed in shiny, neat clothing and their voices sounded like the cry of the birds heading west. I want to be a foreigner.

The bell rings again.

We return to the next class. A banner hangs along the length of the aisle. The Party solemnly proclaims: this generation of the Soviet people will live in a Communist society. That’s progress. One plus one is two. Slaves are not us, and will never be.

Professional Reviews

From Publisher's Weekly
From Publishers Weekly
This blazingly fast and funny semi-autobiographical novel follows a Russian man's comically earnest pursuit of the American dream. As a child, Alex, living in 1950s Siberia with his parents and grandparents, sees a picture of his American-born second cousin, Annie, and he believes he has found his destiny. Throughout his formative sexual experiences, he fantasizes about Annie, who embodies the exoticness of Western culture and the wholesomeness of the American dream. By the late 1970s, when Alex's parents decide to decamp for the U.S., Alex packs up his wife and their young daughter, too, and after the trio land in upstate New York, Alex goes to work at the IBM-like HAL Corporation while his wife, Lyuba, an internist, takes longer to settle in. At first, Alex is content with his new freedom-loving democratic identity, but as his children grow and Lyuba becomes more independent the dream begins to lose its sheen. The novel is hilarious, eye-opening and, by the end, a little depressing. It's tough not to have Alex's buoyant energy rub off on the reader. (Dec.)

From Kirkus Review
An emigre and raconteur chronicles, in digestible bites, his life in Russia and America.Born in what is today the Republic of Moldova, Budman applies his memories of life in Soviet Russia and his sardonic observations of life in America to his witty semi-autobiographical debut. Utilizing the brevity of "flash fiction," the author lets his fictional doppelganger Alex reveal his story in pocket-sized segments, allowing him little more than a chapter or two for each of his 56 years, capturing both the significant turning points and the poignant minutiae of a lifetime's journey in an insightful running commentary. The youthful narrator is a sex-obsessed young man who knows to shout his opposition to the imperialists even in state-sponsored karate class but who also rightly fears the drudgery of work. "I just finished reading Dante's 'Inferno,' so I recognize Hell right away," he says of his first job. "I've abandoned all hope. I'll be lucky to get out of here alive." As time passes, Alex trains as an engineer, marries a girl named Lyuba and raises two daughters, all the while consumed with a healthy imagination and his ongoing attraction to his cousin Annie, who lives in America. Struggling to support his family, Alex schemes to move them to New York, where he becomes a drone for the HAL Corporation. With success beyond his wildest dreams behind him, the boy who only wanted to get a girl finds himself sad, lonely yet still archly comic, even as he tries to come to terms with a life passing him by. "Writing in a second language is supposed to be a torture," says Alex. "But I enjoy it. Maybe I'm a masochist." A funny, little-seen version of the American dream. (Kirkus Reviews)

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