On the face of it, not much happens in Keith Gessen’s new novel, A Terrible Country, but Gessen is such a good writer that most readers won’t mind the book’s meandering plot. Granted, our fascination with just how much influence Russia currently exerts over the United States may have something to do with the novel’s interest, but A Terrible Country is set in 2008, long before most people ever associated the words “President” and “Donald Trump.”
The Russia of this novel is corrupt and violent, but it’s also chaotic and faltering and ultimately pretty endearing. Narrator and protagonist Andrei Kaplan is a likeable sad-sack whose parents emigrated to America in the 1990s. They’re both dead now, and at the request of his brother, who has been forced to flee Russia due to some shady business dealings, Andrei has returned to Moscow to look after his aging grandmother. Their relationship is described in loving, often comic detail, and it is one of the highlights of the novel.
After a number of initial stumbles, Andrei gradually expands his circle of acquaintance beyond his grandmother’s apartment building. He joins a hockey team and throws in with “a group of friendly young socialists” called October, who want to share the country’s wealth and create a more egalitarian society. The fact that they don’t have a chance in Putin’s steel-fisted oligarchy doesn’t mean their efforts don’t garner our admiration.
Andrei even manages to find a girlfriend, the beautiful though often distant and judgmental Yulia, but this is a novel about failure, and the relationship seems to be always on the cusp of falling apart. In the end, Andrei’s return to Moscow leaves him sadder and somewhat wiser, and while Russia may be, as his grandmother says, “a terrible country,” it is clearly at the core of everything he is.