In this year, the year of the Soviet American Jew, when it seems like every man, woman and child who hails from the good old USSR and owns a writing implement has detailed his or her experience, fictionally or otherwise, let us praise Yelena Akhtiorskaya, whose new novel “Panic in a Suitcase” makes something unexpectedly refreshing out of the overcooked tropes of the immigrant household struggling in its new environs.
The household in question belongs to the Nasmertovs, a family that, like Akhtiorskaya’s own, pulled up its Odessa roots and grafted them onto the Odessa-lite soil of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. But the Nasmertovs’ uprooting has been incomplete: The family’s first-born son, the just-on-the-verge-of-being-successful poet Pasha has been left behind, though his decision to stay in Odessa is perhaps based less on personal principle than on constitutional inertia. Pasha, you see, does not make decisions (and he has an “allergy to life-decision discussions”). And that’s to say nothing of the interruptions he hates: “Packing, relocating, resisting the pull of his daily rituals, all this amounted to a profound psychological stress.”
And so Pasha remains in Odessa, “keeping guard over [the family’s] memories,” living in the ancestral kommunalka, summering at the dacha. The other Nasmertovs — the cancer-afflicted matriarch Esther and her husband Robert, their no-nonsense daughter Marina, Marina’s temperamental, disaffected husband Levik, and their petulant daughter Frida — keep hoping that Pasha can be persuaded to join them in Brighton, but then again, they are not so sure. After all, Pasha’s reign as the poet laureate of their old home means they never have to admit that that home is no longer theirs. (Plus, he’s kind of an ass, idly antagonizing his parents and sister. But then if the criteria for togetherness included the ability to play well with others, none of the Nasmertovs would be together.)
When the book begins, the year is 1993. The Nasmertovs have been in Brooklyn for 715 days. (They’re still counting: “It’d seemed that if not counted, the days might either not pass or sneak by in clusters… One thing a Soviet upbringing taught you was to pay attention.”) Pasha is in New York for a month-long visit: to take in the July heat and humidity, to partake of the émigré poetry scene, to shop the flea markets (he’s a bit of a hoarder, that Pasha). In sum: to test the American waters. His response is ambivalent: on the one hand, Brighton puts him in mind of “a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original” Odessa, built at “the very rear of someone else’s crumbling escape”; on the other, he has to admit there are “undeniable charms” to be found there in the form of “the little grandmas selling prescription pills and old furs on the corner, the physics professor with his pile of used watches, the open-air concerts by ardent if not expert musicians.”