‘Where Bears Roam the Streets’ by Jeff Parker
HarperCollins Canada, 2015
29.99 CAD (hardcover)
Review by Bethany W. Pope
Published in The Ofi Press issue 46
Jeff Parker’s Where Bears Roam the Streets is a rollicking, lively, heartfelt travel-memoir displayed behind an (occasionally grating) fake tough-guy veneer. Parker is an American from Florida or, as he puts it, ‘the redneck Riviera’, who became entranced with the idea of Russia through a post-graduate reading of Gogol and wound up spending nearly every summer for a decade there, organizing an international literary festival. The book revolves around a friendship he forged with a ‘bearish’ man named Igor — a man forced to leave school after the ninth grade because his mother could not afford to bribe the headmistress what she was asking to enrol him in the tenth grade:
But word had circulated among the students that any of them intending to continue to the tenth and eleventh grades should schedule one-on-one meetings between their parents and the school director. Igor’s school had a focus on English language learning, and Igor had solid marks. From a purely academic standpoint, there was no reason for him not to continue at the school...
It was clear even to him and his teenage peers what these parent meetings with the school director were all about: those who could meet her price would see their kids attend the tenth and eleventh grades; the children of those who couldn’t pay would take “early graduation.”
Igor waited with two of his classmates, two brothers, Mitya and Kostya, in the hall outside the director’s office. The brothers’ father was inside having his meeting with the director. When he emerged, he had his hat in his hand and a weary look on his face. He closed the door quietly behind him.
“No, children,” he said, “you won’t be here for tenth grade.”
Igor serves as an anecdotal Virgil, weaving foul-mouthed story-trails for Parker to follow through the byzantine structures of Russian culture.
Presenting the story through the eyes (or, rather, across the tongue) of Igor was a brilliant move on Parker’s part. It enables the reader to absorb the small details, the seemingly-superficial-but-secretly-vital facts that collect, like unnoticed silt, around the bare bones of a society and wind up defining the culture’s most memorable features. We learn that vodka is measured in the same way that we westerners dole out drugs, that night never seems to come in the summertime, and that Russians play billiard with balls that are nearly the same size as the pockets on the table, so that every shot is either perfect or missed.
Sometimes, these details are divulged in a torrent, a seemingly endless stream of Russiafacts designed to overwhelm the reader with facets of an alien world:
I read from John Steinbeck’s A Russia Journal. “What do
people wear there? What do they serve at dinner? Do they have
parties? What food is there? How do they make love and how
do they die?” At one time or another, I have put all of these
questions to Igor.
What do people wear there? Igor wears jeans and New
Balance sneakers and button-up shirts with English sayings
such as You may think you are free but you are already hooked on
me. What do they serve at dinner? What food is there? At din-
ner, Igor’s mother often serves his favourite, pasta with chicken
hearts. Other foods there include kholodets (meat jelly), pickled
herring, salads (many with beets and potatoes), pirozhki (the
aforementioned mashed potatoes baked into bread), and pan-
cakes. Do they have parties? Yes, they have parties. They party,
Mr. Steinbeck. Igor and his friends have parties in the woods near
his St. Petersburg neighbourhood known as Piskaryovka on the
edge of the infamous Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, where
around half a million who died in the siege of Leningrad are bur-
ied. The parties of Igor and his friends involve drinking vodka
around a campfire in which they later explode the empty bottles.
How do they make love and how do they die? No comment on
the former, but on the fortieth day after a loved one’s death, many
Russians visit the grave to see the soul off into the afterlife.
Personally, these passages read like the long sections of rules in Leviticus (if there’s mould in your house take it down, brick by brick, and build it again someplace else; if you get a dark mole on your skin, it’s probably fine, but if you get a white mole with a white hair in it, you’d better call the priest, my friend, because you’ve got leprosy; if your brother dies and you’re not married, you’d better marry your sister-in-law to keep the kids in the family); they are fascinating, but they need to be unpacked. I much preferred the second-hand stories delivered in an approximation of Igor’s broken English, describing paintball fads, bar scenes, or watching porn in English hotels while in the country on temporary work visas.
The first time I read this book I did so in one sitting. The writing is lucid; the construction of the story is complex and detailed (in place it reminded me of Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards with its unemployed hero and nearly transcendent compassion) but the story is geared, emphatically, aggressively, towards men — and not in the usual default-to-a-male-protagonist sense. The women Parker chooses to write about encountering are all either pretty, but on the make, nurturing, sexless mothers, or toothless mafia hags. The hags are also on the make.
Parker’s first description of a woman comes in the second paragraph of the prologue. It reads, ‘I was with a Canadian woman, also a tourist there for the same writers’ conference. Jennifer seemed inclined to have an affair with pretty much anyone except me. So, naturally, I was drawn to her.’ This is how he describes a colleague. Her work doesn't matter. Her genitals (and who she chooses to do with them) are what count.
These facts, combined with the ballsy (pun most definitely intended) tone, the little displays of I’m-tougher-than-you masculinity that surface again and again in the text, make it impossible to describe this book as a full representation of Russian life. This American has very carefully chosen which aspects of the culture to focus on, and it’s not particularly surprising that he has chosen to display Russia as a sort of Wild West, where anything goes so long as you’ve got a Y-chromosome and the money for bribing. It’s up to the reader to decide if these flaws are surmountable. I found them more than a little grating, detracting (in a big way) from the sly fluidity of the narrative.