Why This Book Should Win – Pushkin Hills by BTBA Judge James Crossley

James Crossley is a bookseller at Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s Message in a Bottle blog and for the website of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.

Pushkin Hills – Sergei Dovlatov, Translated from the Russian by Katherine Dovlatov, Russia
Counterpoint Press

Pushkin Hills is about a talented but hapless writer called … well, we might as well call him Sergei Dovlatov, even though that’s not the name he has in the book. Dovlatov is really telling his own story, that of a Soviet dissident who’s unable to publish and yet unable to leave his language and his country behind. At loose ends, he makes the impulsive decision to abandon his wife, child, and life, and become a tour guide in the pastoral setting of the Pushkin Preserve, the historic home of the father of Russian literature.

When he’s not immersing himself in drink, the author’s stand-in immerses himself in the picayune details of the great man’s life and trades pedantries with visiting fans. He’s not above making things up when he’s bored, either, which he frequently is. He’s still in love with his ex, who implores him to emigrate with her to the US, but he’s not interested: “My readers are here. Who needs my stories in Chicago?” That he has no actual readers at home doesn’t matter; it’s the principle of the thing, dammit. He’s heroic in his passivity.

The real Dovlatov did eventually make it out of the USSR and became one of the most beloved émigré writers of his era (there’s a street named after him in Queens, New York). Aside from the charming roguishness of the author’s personality, is there something to his work, though? Yes, in spades (my own little Pushkin allusion). Among an excellent longlist of nominees for the BTBA, it’s an enjoyable standout. Why should it win?

  • It’s short. The more I read (maybe I should say the older I get and the less time I have on earth) the more I appreciate books that say what they have to say without belaboring the point. I still love encyclopedic novels when they justify their length by being excellent, but too many of them don’t. Dovlatov’s book feels complete and satisfying and it gets the job done in under 160 pages.
  • It’s funny. Any reader would look forward to a break from unrelenting heartbreak and tragedy, but a judge who’s tasked with surveying over 500 works of fiction in a matter of months is especially grateful for a writer who knows how to crack wise in print.
  • It’s educational. This is a novel steeped in artistic tradition that drops author names like Kanye drops mics. Almost every page includes a reference or an allusion to a classic or contemporary writer, all of which are unobtrusively footnoted and explained by the translator, Dovlatov’s daughter (see her illuminating interview with the Paris Review). By the time you’ve finished the book, you can convincingly claim to have at least minored in Russian Lit.
  • It’s important. The Soviet experiment cast a shadow over the entire globe for more than seventy years, and its legacy is still shaping today’s politics in something like the way an auto accident slows down traffic long after the cars involved have been cleared from the road. Despite the massive effect the USSR continues to have on all of us, it seems to have lost steam as a literary topic. That situation needs to be rectified. Any book that details quotidian human life under the Soviet regime is significant, and an excellent one such as this is invaluable.
  • It’s a book that James Wood really likes. For proof, just read the remarkably supportive afterword he contributed to the first edition. Depending on your feelings about the New Yorker magazine’s resident critic, this might not seem like a positive, but consider this: any non-English novel that gets noted Anglophile James Wood’s praise must deserve a prize.

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