Gelasimov embraces the “show, don’t tell” dictum effectively throughout this short novel from the unique start. The first person narrator, later identified as Constantine or Kostya, has just returned to his home and is trying to fit a lot of bottles of vodka into his refrigerator, and on the window sill, on the floor, in the bathroom and clothes hamper. He’s planning a bender after having done some sort of work, work he’d completed to buy vodka. There’s a knock at the door from his neighbor, a single mother:
“I’m sorry to bother you again,” she said. “My Nikita’s acting up. Please help me out this once. I can’t cope with him myself.”
“No problem,” I said.
I threw on my jacket and went out. I even left my door open.
“Well then, who here doesn’t want to go to bed?”
The little guy shuddered and stared at me as if I were a ghost. He actually dropped his blocks.
“Who here isn’t listening to his mama?”
He was looking at me, speechless. Only his eyes got big as saucers.
“Come on, get your things,” I said. “Since you don’t want to listen to your mama you’re going to be living with me. You get to take one toy.”
He was absolutely speechless, and his mouth was very wide open.
[. . .]
He shifted his eyes to Olga and whispered:
“I’ll go to bed. Mama, I’ll go to bed all by myself right away.”
[. . .]
Then she said, “You’ll have to forgive me for bothering you all the time. It’s just that he . . . you’re the only person he’s afraid of. He stopped listening to me completely.”
“Makes sense. I would’ve been even more afraid if I were him.”
[. . .]
At home I walked over to the mirror and stood in front of it a long time. I looked at what had become of me.
If only Seryoga hadn’t been wrong back then and hadn’t left me to burn up last in the APC. But he thought I was done for. That’s why he pulled the others out first. The ones who still were showing signs of life.
Which means I’m only good for frightening little boys right now.
This whole opening series of events sets up all that is to come: difficult childhoods, especially of Kostya, focused on his philandering and volatile father and an uncaring world; the set piece of boy Koysta hoisting himself up onto the operating table while suffering from acute appendicitis, and within the hectoring presence of the surgeon illustrates well what sort of world he grew up in. We hear about his service in the Soviet Army fighting the Chechens, and the loyalty the surviving soldiers share with one another, as well as the conflicts between them, past and present. We keep returning to this past, especially the attack that left Kostya’s face so disfigured by burns, in an unfolding series of flashbacks.
Three further dynamics play out. First, the young student Kostya was bored in school which lead to his “doodling,” and discovery by the failed-artist head master of Kostya as a naturally gifted artist. This alcoholic headmaster brings Kostya to his home to skip school and draw, although Kostya has only ability, no sense of refinement or sense of beauty. This is another failed father figure in his life. Second, two of his army comrades interrupt the start of his three month bender to enlist his help in finding a third, missing friend. This quest ultimately is inconsequential as a quest, but does set up Kostya’s break from isolation and pattern of work to drink. Third, Kostya reconnects with his father, his new wife, and younger children. Dad hasn’t changed, but the rapport Kostya develops with the wife, and more importantly the two half-siblings, returns Kostya to his drawing.
By the end of the novel his somewhat estranged-from-one-another friends have reached a truce. Kostya has stood up to his father. Kostya has begun drawing—creating—people from his past as restored in an alternative reality: a dead soldier now with wife and children, another who lost his leg now with two working legs. Kostya ends the novel with a drawing of a face—his own, undamaged true self—showing it to Olga and Nikita, and Nikita’s spoken insight that Kostya only looks like a monster.
In some ways, explained this way, Thirst might come off as almost formulaic. Maybe archetypal is the better label of the arc that shows the rebirth of an injured man into real adulthood as well as moving toward reintegration through art, with all of this inner reality mirrored by the recognitions of people surrounding him.
Gelasimov does this with pared down language, effective weaving of past and present, grounding in the particulars of unique place and time, with consistency of voice and narrative pacing. He has taken what might be clunky and predictable in other’s hands and made a work of art. He doesn’t waste a word, an image, a story, but weaves them into a related whole. This is a novel to reread, to see how well everything fits together, to marvel at how images and incidents reflect and inform each other. Gelasimov doesn’t use lyrical, “poetic” language, but he has written a work with the concision of poetry.
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
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“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .