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Expat author invents intriguing antihero

Gary Shteyngart and his protagonist chase the American dream

When people hear the title 'The Russian Debutante's Handbook,' they expect the story of a Slavic beauty's coming of age, perhaps amid fur, jewels and loaded Lada sedans.

Even the cover of the 2002 hardcover edition and the recently released paperback feature a leggy blonde wearing Jackie O sunglasses.

But the actual 'debutante' of the title is a man. Vladimir Girshkin is a 25-year-old Russian immigrant who leaves America to pursue fame and fortune as a mid-level criminal entrepreneur in Eastern Europe. Girshkin is the classic antihero, and author Gary Shteyngart wouldn't have it any other way.

'I don't believe in heroes anymore,' he says.

Shteyngart's affinity for his protagonist comes naturally. He immigrated to New York from Leningrad as a youth, arriving in 1979, at age 7. His despair at leaving his homeland was usurped quickly by the embarrassment of being told by a first-grade teacher that his bearskin coat was scaring his classmates. But his dreams of becoming a member of the Young Pioneers, the national Communist youth group, were replaced quickly with visions of living like J.R. Ewing on the nighttime soap opera 'Dallas.'

Shteyngart's schooling in the American dream continued when he attended Oberlin College in Ohio. It was at the liberal arts school that Shteyngart conceived of Girshkin and began work on the book. He sent out a draft of the manuscript as his application to graduate school and soon had a book deal and rave reviews across the board.

The novel is as brisk as Girshkin's swift descent into shady pyramid schemes; the poignancy of the expatriate experience is balanced with many laugh-out-loud moments.

Shteyngart says he can only write humorous fiction: 'I really don't know how to write anything else.'

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