An American reading the stories in David Bezmozgis’ upcoming book, Immigrant City, might be forgiven if she mistook their setting for somewhere close to home. Only one story highlights the city of Toronto in detail. Instead, the collection of stories focuses on the immigrants and exiles themselves – their private lives, their cultural centres and their hyper-luxurious nightclubs.
Immigrant City, to be published in March 2019 by Harper Collins, is not, in fact, about newcomers, or the latest wave of hapless travellers who find their way to a second life in the New World. Its narratives focus on those who have been here for many years and the children of such people who inherit their parents’ – and their grandparents’ – sense of displacement. Among them is the dolorous Kostya, who has had years to establish himself in the Russian and Latvian enclaves of Toronto, yet remains unmoored, living in another man’s apartment as a kind of perpetual newcomer.
A similar figure in another story is Roman Berman, who has agreed to sell his car to a true newcomer named Svirsky, who’s described as having his “nails dirty from the scrapyard.” Upon closing the deal, Berman can’t help viewing his own efforts to establish a family and a career in the New World as a failure.
Although Toronto – the Canadian city to which Bezmozgis’ family emigrated in 1980 – stays largely in the background, the texture of its Latvian-Jewish community is depicted in all its rough-edged particularity. This material informed Bezmozgis’ breakout 2004 collection, Natasha and Other Stories. In it, Bezmozgis depicted the peculiarities of eastern European exiles in suburbia, of Jewish schooling among bland North American kids and of teenage sexual awakenings.
In Immigrant City, he shifts his focus toward the outcome of his characters’ struggles to start over in a new country, and toward the underside of New World success. This includes dark, slapstick scenarios where gangsters look for a venue suited to setting up a massage parlour, or in which a boxer who was a has-been back in Latvia hires himself out as muscle at a garish restaurant called the Russian Riviera.
These tough-guy stories are ripe with laconic thuggery and convoluted schemes gone awry. Bezmozgis’ Latvians along Highway 401 are the contemporary inheritors of the gangster world set out in Isaac Babel’s masterful Odessa stories.
Bezmozgis’ success with this material derives in part from his intimacy with it. The story that might be most closely linked to his own experience, or at least with that of a compatriot’s entanglement with eastern Europe, is “A New Gravestone for an Old Grave.” It’s a lovely thing, novelistic in its 50-page length, the kind of story one rarely finds these days, since the market for them has evaporated. In it, we follow an American lawyer named Viktor Shulman who is goaded by his parents into travelling to his Latvian birthplace on a kind of fool’s errand: his grandfather’s gravestone, which was hastily installed, must be replaced by a more impressive marker.
Though Shulman cares little for this responsibility, the outcome is a journey across the “flat, green Latvian landscape,” through the “cobblestone streets” of Riga, a city that’s miraculously intact considering its 20th-century history, to confront a surly stonecutter – an implacable, Kafkaesque doorkeeper who has been paid to produce a new gravestone, but has not done the work. This, for Viktor, comes as an existential punch in the gut.
The meeting in the stonecutter’s garage ends in a stand-off, a battle of wills not unlike those acted out by the tough guys back in north Toronto. Viktor, a New World man, is too soft for the challenge and fails miserably in his efforts to accomplish something in the lost world of his grandparents.
Bezmozgis’ way with this material is at once funny and sad. This happy stylistic mixture runs through the stories in Immigrant City. Among the children of exiles, it sometimes proves better to remain clueless about the past. One character, who hesitantly pursues a forgotten family entanglement, recognizes that something “had happened a long time ago between people who were no longer alive and whom we would be the last to know. For flawed and powerful reasons, we assigned too much importance to it.”
The closest thing to a self-portrait in Immigrant City might be the title story, in which a young writer and family man returns to Montreal, the city where he, like Bezmozgis, spent his university years.
The occasion for the writer’s return is a TED Talk-like event, which is pretentiously dubbed “The First Immersive Continuum Narrative Innovation Conference.” But the honorarium that came with the invitation does not prove rich enough to keep Bezmozgis’ writer sitting “upright” with his co-invitees, whose heads he describes as “tracking in subtle uniformity.” He bolts the conference’s opening lecture, proud of himself “for taking 10 virtuous steps” that he fears his wife will lampoon once he’s home.
If this character is Bezmozgis’ alter ego, this decision mirrors the tenor of much of Immigrant City. Old things have been driven out of sight by exile and the rush of contemporary life, but the future, as it’s offered, is no proper answer to this loss.