Earlier today, in a conversation with a friend, I recalled the preposterous little novel I wrote at the age of thirteen: my very first literary work of any sizable scope. The year was 1968; the month was August; the location, Roshchino, a middle-scale lakeside resort community some forty-five minutes away from Leningrad by suburban train.

Titled “The Beginning of a Long Road” (“Nachalo Bol’shogo Puti”), the narrative followed doggedly, over the full ninety-six hand-written pages of a standard-issue school notebook in cornflower-blue oilcloth cover, the peregrinations all across the United States, on foot, in fruitless job search, of three typical unemployed representatives of the American working class: Jim, John, and Jack. Jim was a metal-worker, John — a baker, and Jack — a carpenter.

The whole faux-Grapes of Wrath premise — and to be sure, at the time, my awareness of Steinbeck’s existence was no greater than his of mine — served as but a pretext for me to utilize and show off (if only for my own sole benefit) my newfangled knowledge of the U.S. geography and its regional economies, gleaned solely from the 1953 Abridged Soviet Encyclopedia: a hefty set of massive, thousand-page-long tomes (each weighing at least five kilos and, if hurled with sufficient force from close distance, capable of serving as a potent lethal weapon against an oncoming enemy), filled to trembling overflow with Stalinist propaganda, and one of my primary sources, back then, of all the factual information about the world at large.

All across America, from state to state, the hapless, destitute trio hoofed it, for days and months on end, looking for some kind of gainful employment — and not finding any. America — the dying, historically doomed citadel of the pernicious International Imperialism — was mired in perennial economic depression of cataclysmic proportions. There were no new jobs to be had. None, zero. It was an altogether desperate, extremely hopeless situation.

What did they eat along the way? Scraps of rotting food found in garbage dumps — and also whatever paltry morsels of barely edible crap they were tossed, now and then, by the contemptuously wealthy people residing in the stately mansions and sprawling cattle ranches the three men happened to pass by periodically, in exchange for performing some minor, psychologically degrading menial chores, such as trimming the hedges on the property, clearing the brush, mowing the lawn, shoveling the snow, brushing the dog, petting the cat, raising a barn … Where did they sleep? Oh, wherever the nightfall would find them: along the roadsides, in abandoned factories and unguarded apartment-building entrances, in snowbanks, in rat-infested, dank alleyways, in the leafy shadow of young girls in flower … well, no, actually — not in any immediate, potentially explosive vicinity of the female sex. Jim, John, and Jack, three typical American proletarians, were too impoverished, too chronically underfed and penniless, and too brimful of indignation, so to speak, over the rotten state of affairs in America and the dying capitalist world on the whole, to be interested in girls. Girls sucked, you know, to put it bluntly; they were nothing but a massive distraction from the truly important issues pertinent to the awakening of one’s class conscience … At thirteen, I kind of agreed with them on that latter point.

On a whim, in a clever (I thought, proudly) flight of novelistic fancy, I made Jim, John, and Jack walk all across America, from state to state, in alphabetical order: from Alabama to Alaska, then straight on to Arizona, then directly to Arkansas, etc. In that sense, “The Beginning of a Long Road” was an Oulipian text, if you will — although, needless to say, entirely unbeknownst to me.

The three friends constantly felt puzzled themselves by the fanciful pattern of their wanderings.

“Why in the world are we moving around like this?” Jim would wonder cantankerously. “Instead, you know, of the natural, continuous fashion? That’s totally crazy, goddammit! What’s wrong with us?”

“Yes, I know!” John seconded. “Why, goddammit, can’t we make it so much easier on ourselves, by taking the time to look for jobs in two adjacent states in a row, then two other ones, and so on? Why must we just keep marching repeatedly through a whole bunch of states, clear across the goddamn country, in order to start looking for jobs in earnest? Frankly, I’m exhausted, as I know the two of you are also! My feet are hurting something awful! My shoes are falling apart! My vital inner organs are all out of alignment! Why, goddammit, must we dash around like them old chickens with their heads cut off?… Ah, chickens! Speaking of which. When was the last time I’ve seen one on my plate? Or out in the open, for that matter? What, goddammit, wouldn’t I give right about now for a juicy drumstick or a healthy spoonful of hot chicken soup!”

“Friends, I have a strange feeling, or premonition, that this is something we’re not meant to understand,” Jack interposed after a pause, creasing his narrow brow. “There’s some greater force at play here, I sense, governing our circumstances; some omnipotent alien intelligence, armed perhaps with the all-powerful Marxist theory. If you know what I mean. Or maybe it’s some other, equally potent theory. I’m not sure. The whole thing just gives me the creeps. Better not think about such spooky, unknowable matters … “

From Alabama to Alaska, then straight on to Arizona, then Arkansas, then …

Ah, but no! Not so fast! Not in that exact order! Therein, you see, lay the additional rub, with regards to the narrative’s geography: Idaho, and not Alabama, was where their journey had originated — and from Idaho (Moscow, Idaho — well, naturally) they headed straight for Iowa (that’s right), and only then went to Alabama, then Alaska, then Arizona, then Arkansas, and then Wyoming (yes, Wyoming, goddammit!), then Washington, then Vermont, then Virginia, then Wisconsin, then Hawaii (oh, sure, absolutely; they managed to stowaway themselves in the bowels of a Honolulu-bound tourist ship, you see, and then repeated the maneuver to get back to mainland — after the manner of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn’s trip down the Mississippi), then Delaware, then Georgia — well, you may be getting the idea already — in full compliance, in other words, with the order of letters in the Cyrillic alphabet (rather than the Latin one) and the way the U.S. states are spelled commonly in Russian.

Utah, thus, turned out to be the final point of their months-long ordeal: the frenetic, schizophrenic journey of supposed self-discovery.

In the end, inevitably enough, Jim, John, and Jack come to realize the urgent imperative of joining the U.S. Communist Party, led by the faithful friend of the Soviet Union, Comrade Gus Hall. For a short while, they also entertain the idea of up and emigrating outright to the Soviet Union — the workers’ paradise, the glorious land of their dreams, and all the rest of it — but then, ultimately, they decide against it: first off, Russian must be an extremely difficult language to learn and, frankly, they’re no great linguists; and secondly, and most importantly, it is revealed to them, in a fateful dream shared mysteriously by all three of them at once somewhere in the howling steppes of East Texas, that, even despite the accidental misfortune of not having been born in the Soviet Union, a self-respecting American proletarian must not be a lame-ass quitter and shirk, for whatever ostensibly noble reason, his moral responsibility before the future generations of Soviet Americans to wage the unrelenting class struggle against, ugh, them hateful top-hatted fat cats from the oak-paneled backrooms of the Pentagon’s Wall Street right here, at home, in America, thereby helping to hasten, however perhaps minutely, the ignominious final demise of the pernicious International Imperialism.

The novel’s ending, if memory serves me, went, roughly, as follows:

“We must stay right here and fight!” Jim stated emphatically, hammering his fist against his concave chest and breathing a bit laboriously from the considerable exertion of climbing one of the lovely little hillocks and mountains surrounding the economically depressed and culturally and spiritually dead-as-a-doornail city of the Salt Lake.

“Yes, we must, comrades!” John echoed, coming up from behind with a conspicuous limp and putting his calloused hand with six fingers (I forgot to mention: he was, in a bid to be more interesting to the hypothetical reader, somewhat of a minor freak of nature) on Jim’s frail shoulder. “We will destroy this ugly capitalist realm of exploitation and injustice, and on its ruins we’ll build the new, the beautiful world of … well, you know, harmony and equality and all that! Comrades, I’m so damn excited! I just can’t hide it! Well, now what? I mean, what’s the next step? I suppose, we start by locating the office of the Utah state branch of the Communist Party, right?”

“Right,” confirmed Jack, also emerging on the mountaintop — despite his high fever and the hacking cough fairly ravaging his emaciated body — and, in his turn, placing the brittle bird’s paw of his hand on John’s shoulder. “Well, comrades! One for all, as the saying goes, and all for one! There’re no obstacles we couldn’t overcome together! We’re yet to see — to quote the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov, whom I have no idea as to how I can possibly know, goddammit — the sky sparkling with diamonds!’

They stood up there, on the windswept mountaintop in the state of Utah, the three of them, in a single file, bunched close together, barely alive with fatigue — and yet, unaccountably happy, too, and filled with extreme resolve; even though they knew full well that this was only the beginning of a long, hard, super-arduous road ahead!”

In short, it was a bunch of unselfconsciously opportunistic nonsense.

But so what. I was just a Soviet kid. What did I know?

I remember that August of 1968 well. I went on a couple of successful mushroom hunts; swam (and, on one occasion, nearly drowned: I was a pretty bad swimmer, and still am) in the placid Roshchino lake; exchanged several progressively more soulful and maudlin pieces of correspondence with the lovely girl from my middle-to-high school that I had a crush on at the time; played for hours on end with the impossibly cute, bear-like little Caucasian Shepherd puppy my parents gave me as a birthday gift the month before (in fairly short order, growing in leaps and bounds, he would turn into a veritable Hound of the Baskervilles: much too large and mean a creature, in other words, for our cramped, three-room apartment in a concrete-block building in one of the less picturesque Upper Kupchino “Khrushcheville” micro-districts on the outskirts of Leningrad; but that, of course, is a whole different story); raised my personal record for consecutive two-arm chin-ups to an impressive thirty-five (these days, I wouldn’t be able to pull off just one even if my life depended on it — which it occasionally does, incidentally, in one of my recurrent nightmares … well, not really); met one afternoon, randomly, over at the local park (where he was trying to keep an eye on his rambunctious toddler of a grandchild), and proceeded gushingly to introduce myself to, the famous Soviet children’s and young-adult writer, Lev Kassil, author of my favorite novels “Conduit and Schwambrania” and “The Great Opposition” — who subsequently, smiling wryly, presented me with an autographed bookmark bearing his sagacious Semitic likeness and imprinted at bottom with one of his hallmark pithy sayings: “If only children thought more frequently about what they will be like when they grow up, and the grown-ups recollected more frequently with regards to what they were like as children, old age would never be in any hurry to come to people, and wisdom would never visit them too late.”

As the summer of 1968 wore on and drew to a close — in a development that had little to do with my own tiny little thirteen year-old existence — the heroic Soviet Army occupied brotherly Czechoslovakia, in order to save the latter from sliding irrevocably into the nightmarish cesspool of Capitalism and International Imperialism. My old Bolshevik grandfather rejoiced at the news, seated in an easy chair out on the porch of our rented dacha with the Pravda newspaper (all aglow with the black fury of its ruthless headlines) unfurled across his lap: “Well done! Way to go! We should’ve done this earlier!” In my book — as far as I was concerned, at the time, that is to say — he never was and never could be wrong. However, from my parents’ whispered conversations behind half-closed doors, their meaningful sidelong glances and eye-rolls at the Pravda-reading Grandfather — and from the certain sotto voce exchanges between the stern-looking, poorly shaven city strangers milling around the Roshchino park in the dark — I began to gather the uneasy notion that the truth of the world as it had been known to me thus far might not, in point of fact, be such a clear-cut proposition. Something stirred inside me, darkly exciting, like a flock of blackbirds.

Also around that time, my grand-uncle — my father’s de facto adoptive father — died: one of the leading Soviet experts in the field of cellulose industry and owner of a very large library of old books in several languages in his rambling, spacious apartment in midtown Leningrad, just around the corner from the Dostoyevskean apartment building where I was born and spent the first eight years of my life. An inveterate long-distance swimmer, he nonetheless, somehow, managed to drown during a routine morning exercise, while crossing some narrow northern river, while attending a cellulose-themed symposium. A sudden muscle spasm, apparently.
Everyone in my family was crushed … I loved him a lot.

Jim, John, and Jack. Three unemployed American workers. If it were up to me now, I would’ve had those three bums up and hired by a Red Lobster somewhere in the vicinity of Coxsacke, NY, say — provided there is one up there, which there must be — and be done with them.

But for better or worse, I won’t be able to do anything with them, or about them, now — not now and not ever — even if I wanted to, because back in 1993, when I was relocating to New York from Minneapolis (where I had completed my two-year stint as a visiting assistant professor), the large cardboard box containing that old standard-issue school notebook in cornflower-blue oilcloth cover (among sundry other sentimental mementoes, such as scores of childhood photographs, a few slim stacks of adolescent love letters, drafts of unfinished youthful stories, that Lev Kassil-autographed bookmark, the oil painting of an oversized and idiosyncratically angled crawfish on a wet pub table next to a massive half-empty mug of Zhigulevskoe beer which my late father had bought for me on the occasion of my departure for America; et al.) — the only truly irreplaceable box out of the twenty-four comprising the sum total of my earthly possessions that I had shipped off to a friend’s address in the Bronx — got lost without a trace in transit.

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