My Life at First Try
Each chapter in Budman’s debut novel begins the same way. The Russian-born narrator, Alex, records the year and his age: “It’s 1954. I am four,” or “It’s 1975. I am 25.” The effect is rigorously orienting; we can never forget for a moment where we are and with whom we’re hanging out, a neat trick for a novel so concerned with identity.
Alex grows up in the Soviet Union, briefly under Stalin, then under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, and as Stalin fades into history, so does Alex’s interest in Communism. By the time he’s a teenager, the party has lost out to his new interest in girls, and, eventually, hopefully, emigrating to America. Though he aspires to work as a writer, he capitulates to pressure and takes up engineering at school. But that sense of not belonging in the fatherland never leaves him: “I am a hereditary immigrant. My grandparents immigrated twice without moving out of their house….Russia, Romania and the Soviet Union arranged the process for them by moving the borders back and forth.” By 1980, at the age of 30, Alex finally makes it to America, as a “rootless cosmopolitan.” He settles in New York, makes brief trips to a dear cousin in Florida and tries to orient himself to the new country, becoming a Republican because “they are against Communism” and “for law and order.”
Budman tells his story (it’s admittedly semi-autobiographical) in tight, tiny vignettes, a form he’s accustomed to as the publisher of the flash-fiction magazine Vestal Review. Told in such short sections, the story comes through in patches that, over time, enmesh, overlap and weave together into a rich, if haggard, story of a life.
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