Most crime novelists write like spinners on Atkins. Lean, mean tales of tough talking and even tougher thrills in a familiar setting. That’s cool when you just want a quick fix. A crime thriller or mystery that delivers familiar thrills on familiar turf. But read enough of those and you find yourself craving for a change of scene. Someplace you haven’t read about a thousand times before. Characters that really are different, and aren’t named Osama-something, or Sam-something.
Vodka is more than a quick fix. Sure, it’s a crime novel, a mystery, a thriller. But it’s a hell of a lot more than just that. It’s a novel about an entire country during a time of profound, sweeping change. It’s an ambitious doorstopper of a book, an epic of emotion and change, politics and economics, war and peace. It’s a novel about Russia that reads like a great Russian novel, and comes close to becoming one. Close, but no cigar. I mean, it’s no classic, okay? But then again, it’s not trying to be Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, just a terrific crime epic. And by that yardstick, it delivers the goods.
It’s set in the early Nineties, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and during the tumultous period when the Russian government was trying to introduce American-style capitalism–or heck, at least some American-style capital, period! Things are crazy, inflation is out of control, Moscow is run as much by the crime syndicates, and the long-simmering bitterness between various ethnic groups–the Chechens, the Georgians, etc–is bubbling to the point of outright street war, inflation is out of control, the bread lines are around the block but the supermarkets are filled with imported stuff that costs a fortune, the everyday stresses and tensions are so great that road rage leads to multiple homicide and the police is so corrupt that they actually moonlight for the crime lords at times.
Author Boris Starling paints all of this in brilliant, vivid descriptions that are rich, intense, emotionally involving. This is no Traveler-style travelogue for the rich and famous. It’s gritty, down-and-dirty, street-talking, getting down with the Moscow homies kind of stuff. Except that it’s Russia, not the ‘hood. Starling writes like a slumming homeboy who’s really been there, seen that, done his time in the Red Square, and lived to tell the tale–and write the book. His Russia is the most palpable, tangible portrayal I’ve read in a long time. This is not just damn good research, I’d wager; it’s real knowing.
Into this madmaxian chaos he tosses a bunch of extraordinary characters, larger than life–or larger than American life, at least–because in the baroque Russia-in-upheaval of the novel, even these soap-operatic giants seem to fit in comfortably. There’s an American woman, Alice, too beautiful for her own good and with a serious alcohol problem that she can’t bring herself to accept. She’s here to help the Russian government implement the first of its capitalisation plans, the sale and privatisation of a major Russian enterprise, a vodka manufacturing plant. Counterpointing her is Lev, a giant of a man physically and psychologically, one of the most outstanding fictional creations in crime fiction. Like everyone else in Russia, he occupies multiple roles: Owner of the vodka plant, philanthropist and caregiver to a school of orphans–and incidentally, head of one of the biggest Moscow crime syndicates.
These two characters, Alice the American and Lev the Russian are the two endpoints of this enormous tug-of-war that is the battlefield on which Vodka plays out its liquor-drenched emotional epic saga. And trust me, if you don’t drink, you’re going to be hugely fascinated (as I was) by the amount of vodka drinking that goes on throughout this book. I thought books like Lawrence Block’s early entries in his Matt Scudder series did just about whatever there was to be done with alcohol addiction that you could fit in to a crime novel. But Vodka makes even a lifetime of personal stories told at AA meetings seem like fairy tales in a kindergarten. There’s excess here, in excess. Everybody drinks all day long, from the prime minister and president of the country, down to the cops and the criminals, and even the kids. Everybody except Alice Lidell’s surgeon husband, and he’s portrayed as a wuss anyway.
But vodka is more than just a plot device in this book. It’s a part of the story itself, because it’s a part of the country. Vodka is a metaphor for Russia itself: clear as ice, apparently without flavour or odour, but wholly unique, holding its secrets tightly within its molecules, giving them up only to those willing to imbibe it in huge, enormous, mind-numbing doses. You can understand Russia, sure. But understanding will come close to killing you as well. And like some of the characters discover too late in the book, perfect understanding comes only with erasure of your own life. Russia accepts no other partner in her claim over your consciousness.
There’s a serial killer thread running through the book. There’s a gang war and vengeance drama played out from start to finish. There’s a rambunctious love story, which goes through every shade of man-woman drama imaginable, and then some. There’s chases, and gunfights, and riots, and tank wars in the streets, and drive by shootings as common as butter at breakfast, there’s politics and political debate enough to keep a Senate House raging for weeks, there’s history unloaded by the bucketful, there’s individual stories woven through the larger fabric like colourful silk threads mingled into an already overdone pattern, and somehow Starling holds it all together, gathers up the slack, and keeps the whole afloat.
This is an epic of a novel, no doubt about it. It’s a terrific novel about Russia, and a terrific love story, and a terrific social saga.
It’s somewhat less effective as a crime novel, or as a serial killer thriller. But that’s only in comparison. It’s not that the crime story doesn’t work–oh, it works amazingly well, with Starling able to conjure up backstory and motivations so effectively, you wonder if he had a sideline as a homicide investigator in Moscow as well as a serial killer! It’s more that the crime story is like another book written into the larger book about Alice and Lev and the privatisation plotline.
At the end, the vodka drinking gets a bit too much, almost as if the prose starts to stagger from its own excessive imbibing, and the Russian history becomes too much exposition too late. But to give credit to Starling, this is not so much his failing as the reader’s overwhelming desire (at that point) to just find out how it turns out for the characters. His continuing exposition, unravelling late though it is, is unavoidable, you see in retrospect. As is his maintaining the vodka metaphor–because by this point, it’s not just a metaphor, it’s just there.
Don’t make the mistake of picking up this book because you want a quick serial killer thriller. Or even a good mystery. Or just a sexy love story between an American woman and a Russian crime lord. Sure, Vodka delivers all these separate pleasures in a single package. But most of all, it’s a novel about Russia now and how she’s gotten where she is today (or well, a decade ago). In the end, the real protagonist of this book is Ms Russia, daughter of that old stalwart Mother Russia. She’s gorgeous, she’s slutty, she drinks too much and can kill over political differences. But she makes for a compelling, sweeping, epic read. Read Vodka if you want to get to know her better. Just be willing to go all the way with her, to the last drop. And except a hell of a hangover the next morning–if you survive.