Ivan and Misha by Michael Alenyikov is an interrelated set of short stories about two fraternal twins, one bi-sexual and one gay, and their father, Lyov. The first story is set in Kiev (the largest city in the Ukraine) in Russia, where they were born. In the brief prologue (set in the 1980s at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union) we learn that the wife of Lyov and mother of the boys died before they were six. The father is a doctor. We learn he only received one year of medical training and was sent out into the horrors of WWII in the Ukraine to remove limbs from soldiers, without anesthetics. They live in a large apartment complex in the style of the times. The father keeps promising his sons a better life, a new mother, a new apartment, but nothing really happens until he moves the family to New York City and the stories start in the late 1990s. Alenyikov gives us a wonderful feel for the immigrant experience.
I do not want to say too much about the plots of the stories as I want people to be able to discover them on their own, so I will just talk a bit about why I like this work so much.
I think the character of the father is brilliantly done. He is handsome, he likes women, but he can it seems never really love anyone but his lost wife, Sonya. Of course he cannot practice medicine in New York City so he makes do with a series of jobs, always supporting his boys. The father loves the great Russian writers- Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev and above all Chekhov. The father should have been a scholar and a poet and he knows this but he accepts the hand fate has dealt him. We know he has suffered deeply but he shrugs it off. In one very moving scene, he is looking through the drawers of one of his now grown sons and he finds a magazine with nude pictures of men. He is shocked and asks his son what this means even though he already knows. The son tells him either accept him as he is or never see him again. The father knows he must keep his son in his life and accepts it though not without regret. One of the best stories is told from the father's point of view. He never gives up who he is but he does not hide behind old ways either. In Lyov I see a man who has learned it is best sometimes to hide his intelligence and culture from those who will not understand it. He has chosen to appear less than he is. Lyov lives his life knowing he will never really have contact again with someone who can understand the depth of his thoughts and his culture. Then again maybe he also does not see what those around him may be hiding.
It was very interesting to see his relationship to an American man his own age. The man has nowhere near the cultural depth of Lyov (his American name is Louie) but Lyov relates to him on terms of complete equality. This is a very subtly done relationship.
One of the brothers, Ivan, is a cab driver, he is a foot or so shorter than Misha. Ivan always has a crazy money making plan he is working on, none of which ever work and most of which cost Misha money. Ivan is a marvelous seducer. Any man that gets in his cab is fair game, even a woman or two!
Misha is the "sensible brother". He tries to create a sense of family with his lovers.
Alenyikov does a great job of creating a sense of physical place, not something a lot of writers do well. This ranges from the small apartment of Ivan to New York City. We also get a very clear sense of how everyone lives. I confess when I read a story about a person I like to know what they eat and we do in Ivan and Misha.
Alenyikov's treatment of the sexuality of the brothers is simply brilliant. I liked that there was no discussion at all about how the two brothers "got that way", no suggestion that there was something wrong with them. It is just who they are and everyone in their lives accepts it including them. There is one very shocking scene that took a lot of real daring to write.
There are some really wonderful minor characters in the novel. There is the handsome as all outdoors young Mormon missionary in the big city for the first time who does not know he is gay until Ivan seduces him and there are madmen right out of Howl. There is an elderly lady with a very mysterious past who goes from Ivan's cab customer to one of his closest friends. I liked her a lot and I think you will also as you try to figure her out.
There are tragic elements in the stories. There is death, serious mental illness and Aids in these stories. There is also a sheer love of life that comes strongly through. Readers of Russian literature will love all of the references and will have fun deciding if they agree with what the characters say about the various writers.
The prose is beautiful. There are many exquisitely done images. I will restrain myself from comparing his work to the great Russian masters but this could be done without condescension or pandering.
Here Alenyikov's biography taken from his web page:
Michael Alenyikov’s short stories have appeared in Canada’s Descant (nominated for a 2007 Pushcart); The Georgia Review; New York Stories; Modern Words, The James White Review, and have been anthologized in Best Gay Stories, 2008 and Tartts Four: Incisive Fiction From Emerging Writers. His essays have appeared in The Gay & Lesbian Review. He was a MacDowell Fellow. Raised in New York City, Alenyikov has worked as a bookstore clerk, clinical psychologist, cab driver, and interactive media writer. He lives in San Francisco.
He recently won the very prestigious Northern California Fiction Prize for 2011.
I am very honored to have been provided a complementary copy of this wonderful book. This is in way a book about what it means to be gay but it is really more a book about people who happen to be gay. There is a big difference.
I totally endorse this book.