It’s hard to characterize Steffi’s Club by D.A. Blyler. Is a mystery? A crime novel? A book with a heavy Central European sense of place, like Arthur Phillip’s novel Prague, or The Winter Zoo by John Beckman? It’s all and none of these things.
Originally, I was excited to review this novel because it’s set in Plzen. (Unlike the author, I’m not going to subject you to anglicized versions of Czech words and placenames — that’s a pet peeve of mine. In my opinion, if you’re going to include a glossary of words at the back anyway, don’t change their spelling to make it “easier” on the reader, it’s insulting). The novel’s tagline proclaims it “an absinthe-fueled romp through the subterranean world of the Czech Republic.” Um, ok. I think a few shots of absinthe might have put me in a better mood before writing this. I’ve had absinthe-fueled romps before and, sir, this is no absinthe-fueled romp. It is an entertaining, but not life-changing novel. No one’s going to pack up their life and move to Plzen after reading this book.
When I lived in Prague, I spent a good amount of time in Plzen with my Czech friends. I wanted to feel the presence of faded Baroque buildings standing side by side with modern Communist monstrosities, smell the coal smoke in the air, hear the clipped squeaks of the trams as they round street corners and rattle the cobblestones. I didn’t. Blyler is good with realistic dialogue but often short on descriptions; I found myself filling in the mental blanks more than once. I’d be curious to hear what impression someone who has never been to Plzen has after reading Steffi’s Club.
Standard setup: the novel opens in a 24-hour strip club staffed by Daniel’s Czech-born, American-raised girlfriend Svetlana. Enter Steffi, the proprietrix of a brothel who wants her girls to learn English. Daniel, the protagonist, is of course an English teacher. All the Americans and Brits in these books are English teachers. Someday in the not too distant future, a university somewhere will have to teach an entire self-referential literature class about novels starring English teachers in Central Europe. At least in The Winter Zoo, our man ended up working in a casino.
But I digress: Svetlana has no problem with Daniel lolling around in a house of ill repute for money, and so he ends up working with some sketchy characters to make a fast buck, including Stepan, the Russian mobster stereotype with a heart of gold, and Tony the midget pimp.
Did I mention that I wanted to like this book? Come on. How can you not enjoy the thought of a Gypsy midget pimp?
I really did want to like it, it’s just that I’ve read this book before. It’s called Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia, by Michal Viewegh. I’m asking for a nice karmic slap by saying that, since I’m currently halfway through writing my own novel, which is set in Berlin. Someone who lived there is going to remind me of all the things I neglected to put in the book, and pick my storytelling skills apart, and compare me to who knows what. I’ll take my chances.
Steffi’s Club isn’t a bad book. It’s a quick read. It’s entertaining. It’s fast-paced. There’s a nice Bourne Identity-esque ending. But I found myself wanting more than what it had to give me, and so I hope that its sequel (currently in production) will do a better job of evoking this country and city I love.
Blyler is a talented writer — check out his essay The 7 Vices of Highly Creative People on Salon.com for proof — but Steffi’s Club feels rushed to me. I’ll reserve final judgment until the sequel.