Thursday, May 28, 2015





U.R. Bowie
Book available in paperback and e-book on and at selected bookstores. Audiobook is in production, soon available.

Elkin (Own) Selph is a normal fifteen-year-old boy living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in a fictitious town called Tocotano, Georgia. His story is absolutely ordinary. He plays football on the high school team, jokes around with his friends, has a girl friend named Idie. Elkie is a happy kid, enjoying his life. Then one day, in October, 2014, things go horribly wrong. Own flees his life, sets off on an odyssey that takes him into nearby South Carolina (Westminster, Seneca), and eventually returns to Tocotano, where tragedy of his own making awaits him.

The story is told in a jazzed-up teen slang by Own himself. His favorite novel and book is the rather violent A Clockwork Orange, and Own mixes the exotic slang of that work with Georgia dialect and his own invented language to create a unique new way of storytelling. Here’s the beginning of the novella:


Ole Own Itties Off


Start off with the ole ultra-cinema cam on a close-up of me face, brothers. Like Little Alex in the first scene of A Clockwork Orange. There sits me, ole Own, putting him on a mean ole sod-off litso-ditso for the camera. Holding up the handgun in the air. The music in the soundtrack is dobby fine ole Ray Charles, a-crooning out his pnin-bang song called “Georgie.” Ah, listen to him a-swanging and dook-zvook grooving. Puts a tear in me eye, O my brothers and sisters. Mighty smooth and mighty blinn-ding COOL, ole Ray. YAAAAAS.
Let him go on a-sanging and grinning big, playing the ole pianner and shaking his bod side to side, magnifi-likewike-cent Ray, while y’all pulls back the camera, real slow like, medlenny-ho, back, back, back, to show the sad and bloody thang in the ole lunch room where sets the PERP—that is, ole Own. Pull it back back back while the song sangs on. Show the dits-blitz carnage that’s scattered about the room. The dead bodies and all. Who would have thought the lot of them to have had so much blood in them? Then, as the camera goes on pulling back—out to where all the poeleasers and gendarmes is a-crouched behind their poe-lease cars—ole Ray’s song fades out and you hear that-there wah-plach whiny voice of the PERP. Here’s what he says

 U.R. Bowie, who holds a Ph.D. in Russian literature, has been writing fiction for forty years. This is his seventh published book. Among his most recent publications are Anyway, Anyways (a collection of short stories) and Disambiguations: Three Novellas on Russian Themes. Bowie has an author page on His blog is “U.R. Bowie on Russian Literature.”

For more information, or to set up an interview with the author, contact Bowie at this e-mail address: Or call (352) 225-3533.


Monday, May 25, 2015





Ole Own Itties Off


Start off with the ole ultra-cinema cam on a close-up of me face, brothers. Like Little Alex in the first scene of A Clockwork Orange. There sits me, ole Own, putting him on a mean ole sod-off litso-ditso for the camera. Holding up the handgun in the air. The music in the soundtrack is dobby fine ole Ray Charles, a-crooning out his pnin-bang song called “Georgie.” Ah, listen to him a-swanging and dook-zvook grooving. Puts a tear in me eye, O my brothers and sisters. Mighty smooth and mighty blinn-ding COOL, ole Ray. YAAAAAS.
Let him go on a-sanging and grinning big, playing the ole pianner and shaking his bod side to side, magnifi-likewike-cent Ray, while y’all pulls back the camera, real slow like, medlenny-ho, back, back, back, to show the sad and bloody thang in the ole lunch room where sets the PERP—that is, ole Own. Pull it back back back while the song sangs on. Show the dits-blitz carnage that’s scattered about the room. The dead bodies and all. Who would have thought the lot of them to have had so much blood in them? Then, as the camera goes on pulling back—out to where all the poeleasers and gendarmes is a-crouched behind their poe-lease cars—ole Ray’s song fades out and you hear that-there wah-plach whiny voice of the PERP. Here’s what he says.

So what’s it gots to be about, O me brothers? First-off of all, gentle reader and friend, let me introduce myself. I am Elkin Selph of Tocotano, Georgia. My friends call me Own. I even call my ownself Own. I am fifteen, and it’s not like-wike I don’t know what I’m doing. I know what I’m doing, or, better to say, just have did-done. Killing/killed people. The question is, blinn-ding, why? How come thou done didst did it, Own? Just BECUZ. It’s sad, doe, you know? Right dobby good dang-down sad. Enough to make a growing malchichiwick sit down and cry. Wah-wah-wah, goes the weepy-wike baby—oowhah, oowhah, oowhah.
So tell us about it, Own, for we, O little brother, are eager and willing to hear thy glooped-out soppy tale. Okay, since you is asting real nice-wise, I shalt blinn enlighten thee and thine. Let’s start off with the where and when. It’s Monday, October 27, 2014, and Own Selph sets in the cafeteria building of Tocotano High School—surrounded by what-oncet-was his best friends and droogies. It’s dark in here, but they don’t mind, them friends-oncest-was, for they, O my reader, are off in a new dimension—where it’s all dark-like-wike SMEERT and dread, dread dead.

Take Hubert Spurlin, ole Hubes, flat on his dingbat blinn back, with his red hair and gray eyes, open as they be, them glazzies, and staring off into nothing. NADA. Or take Winford (Butch) Moseley. My frenemy-enema, ole fatso Butch, he’s a-draped over a table, and his big loud mouth is all raskritted wide wide open. But he ain’t saying, for a change, not Jack squat zilch. NEE-CHEE-GO. Or take sweet little Idie, who in life loved, like-wike, best of all things that be, the songs of ole Milky Chance. Him being, ole Milky, this-cheer crooner of the popsie-type music. OOo-wha, OOo-wha-wha.
No, I can’t look at Idie, at whom I was like #P.Oed off at, but at whom I feel not never no more not pee-oh-ed now. No. For sweet Idie is no more, and that, in my cray-mad mind doth grieveth me O most mightily, brothers and friends. It’s crying time. Wazzums, wazzums, dere dere dere, weepy weepy now, for I hast supped full of horrors.

BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM, still hear the bams in me ookas-ears as I sets here, friends, contemplating what hath I wrought. Need bad to cheest the blood off me rookers. A sorry, sorry sight. And to put the jive aside for one minoota and say it plain—what I done did earlier today was I walked into this here school cafeteria with a .40 caliber Glock. Shot lots of people. Haven’t done me a body count, but it’s about a dozen, maybe baker’s. Some of them my sworn enemies, or, rather, my frenemies-enemas, and the others? Well, the others, likey-wike, just got their teeny-bobber nod-soddy butts into the wrong-as-they-say place at the wrong nee-too-da time.
So what’s it gots to be about, friends and neighbors? Frash my Facebook page—you’ll find it all there. The clues as to the done went going tweet berserk of poor ole Own. As for right this present now, I don’t have time to think about the whys and wherefores of the blinn-ding past. For I have me dobby fine future to worry about. My going forward. And that future is such as to measure, dear brothers and sisters, as some piddling blinn matter of hours. After that cometh still more BAM-BAMS.
Out there in the dark, in the light of the ole Luna, there beest scads of moodges bearing, like-wike, a-salt rifles. I can see them fookwah folks in me mind’s glazzies: fat big old poeleasers, newking out sweat-stench from their unwashed bods and oversized backsides. Wearing belts a-hung with sticks and tear gassers and taze-guns. All looking for a chance at gassing or tazing or bam-bamming the PERP. Who is your humble teller of this tale, brothers. That is, domeless wonderboy Own Selph, who, as his momma used to say, was always a good little boy. Still is. Me, I ain’t no gangsta, nor even a wannabe gansta (a wangsta-dangsta). I just ain’t. For, as thee and thine may not twig on—but as Elkie now knoweth, O yea, verily—becoming a murderer doth not change your basic own self. Kk?

You’re still you. And beezoomnee as this may sound, you’re still like-blinn full of the milk of human kindness. And then again, you may, gentle reader, be a-denking that you could never do what ole Elkin Selph just done diddy-did done. You’re wrong. You could. Anybody could. It all depends on the like-wike circumstances. And that’s why I herewith sitteth and speweth out unto thee and thine the whole sad tale. Are you listening, lewdies? About how it all cameth about. On a fine fall day in the lovely mountains of North Georgie. 

Denk about it. When this October 27, 2014 rolled over into being, I had little notion that today would be #THEday. The day of the AWESOMITY. Thang is, I gots to tell this bidness out fast, to y’all and yallses, reader, as I sets here on me lonesome, all left on me ownsome. What I’d really like to do, frankly, is just bawl out me kishkas and guttiwuts. Lay down and whimper out a big healthy BOO-HOO-HOO, but I don’t gots the time. Kk? Don’t know when they’ll be coming for the PERP. Soon, though/doe. I figure first of all them poeleasers out there in the dark, they’ll send in here a little robot. Like teetoncey R2-D2 in the old Star Wars. Robo-guy will come a-bleeping and goolieing in the door, GLEEK, GLOOK, GLEEK, take a right turn in the hallway, and make for ole Own—blithering out all the while his message: “I-am-your-friend.” Then, after he’s goolied his way right up upon unsuspecting PERP, he’ll smile him a big ear-to-ear gloopy blinn grin and pull out a tear-gas grenade and pop ole Own upside the bashka: ZAP. Then what?

Not to get none too #philo-shitebird-sophical on you, reader, but folkies and lewdies has been asting that question since the beginnings of time. Quid nunc? Then what? And not nobody nowhere hast ever come up with a blinn of a blinn answer. Another question like-wike that one is, How come? Don’t nobody nowhere know, bleeb, how come—for what, after all, is out there in life that makes any diddley dobby good sense, amigos? Nada, nada, and (all together now, one more time)—NADA. Take this: ole Own in the seventh grade was elected King of the Junior Prom. Amazing. Elkin (Own) Selph. A king. Let you in on a malenky wittle secret, lewdies: never since the beginning of me born days has old Elkie ever-never felt like a king. Never.
What happens to your Facebook page and all your Instagrams when you zdoak? Do they take it offline the next day? Erase all the blather you done-diddley posted, and retweet all your tweets off onto some place near Mars? Do they put up a necro page: “The former inhabitant of this, likey-wike, page is not never no more, that is, now DECEASED, and any further deermo-crap “Likes” of his #defunct-like person should be herethwith and from now on addressed to SOMEWHERE IN CYBERSPACE.”

Take that little blonde kissochka over there resting comfortably on the floor—gunshot wound to the head. Don’t know her name, don’t know like-wike jack squat zilch about that unfortunate missy. Except this. She’s prolly got fifteen hundred friends on her page, and scads of silly like-wike selfies, with followers, all of them kissochkas in the pictures a-goofing about and pulling gloopy-dumb faces. And in her dead head right this minoota there’s still a doofus pop song a-running, ding, dang di-di-di-di-diddley. Most likely it’s old sappy Sam Smith, crooning out “Stay With Me,” or “In the Lonely Hour.”

But then again, she’s got a fam out there in the dark somewhere: a sissie and a bro and a moom and a poop. I can imagine them IMAGINE, IMAGINE, IMAGINE right this very seecoondochka. They are gathered together along with all the fams of the missing, on the bleachers of the ole school gym. Waiting and waiting, a-waiting out the poeleaser-gendarme assault on the likey-wike PERP—and hoping against any sort of miserable dingblatt hope that their Sally is still drawing breath when the poeleasers get there. Except that she, by the looks of her shot-up pumpkin from where sets the PERP in this-cheer cafeteria—she ain’t never not ever to draw another like-wike breath going forward. You feel me? Kk.
I hate that blinn shitebird “going forward.” You know? How come it beeth that every lewdie and his like-wike nuncle has to say that all the time? Going forward this, and going forward that, and kiss my double-breasted going-forward backside. “Oh, I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor.” You remember that wikey-like poem, gentle reader? Ole Shel Silverstein. Me moom used to read it to me when I was a mere bootoozchik of a babe. “I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor, and I don’t like it—ONE BIT. Oh gee, he’s up to my knee. Oh my (quavering voice) he’s up to my THIGH.” Idie and I used to recite that-there poesy and diddle-biddle tickle each other and laugh like bejesus out loud: YO-HO-HO. Dead Idie. The former Idell Owen, human being. But I make no appy polly loggies for that to thee and thine, O me last and lovely friends. For the blame is not Own’s, but is of circumstances. Or, as they say in the song, “Blame it on the night, don’t blame it on me.”
I am, though-doe, worried about me moom and me poop as here I squats in the darkie-like gloom, awaiting the coming of the friendly robot. Still wearing me dobby good ole Georgie Tech black-and-gold capochka. Or the FBI guys. Or the SWAT team fellers. For what did the m and the p ever do to deserve such as this in their lives? Sad, sad, sad, sad, sad. Get a grip, Own, for thou hast work to do and no time for them blinn-ding regrets. As thou croucheth in the dark and being sore athirst. Need me a drink of water. But never mind that, hie thee back to the flapping of the ole yahzick in the mouth and the talkie-talk telling of this-cheer tale—for likey-wike posterity.

And what about me little sis, dear Sadie, being she of tenderest years age eight, what about dear NO NO NO NO NO. Must not let me mind go ittying off there, for that-there is a place that ole Own, while he still lives zheeznee and has like-wike breath MUST NOT GO. Being as he is prone, all too prone, to the boo, and the hoo, and the still more BOO-HOO-HOO.
We are now a-wrenching Own’s thoughts back away from that Sadie spot: wrinch, wrinch, wrinch. Ole Elkie Own hast been here in the like-wike limbo for hours now. Right-cheer in the ole cafeteria, in dear ole Toco Town High. Ever since he done did-diddy done IT. Two wittle clockoes and me Ides, in one fell swoop. Ole Own Selph can well imagine the scene outside, doe. Right after the EVENT, say. Fat poeleasers swarming, swarming, all toting big long pooshka-guns, talking Georgie poe-lease talk on twoway radios (“Over, over, that’s a big ole roger, a ten-four to that, droogies, over, over and out”), and the dear schoolniks of ole Toco Town High—swarms of them-there too—running full-tilt-wilt, hands held high over their gullivers, streaming out onto the green green grass of HOME—beneath the golds and reds and orangey leaves of the lovely wang-blang trees of October, in Tocotano, Georgie. Gem of the Georgie mountains. The All-American City. Can the PERP get a big OMG (on my grave) AMEN to that, lewdies?
I caint hear you, lewdies…
Still caint hear you…


Friday, May 22, 2015




Available for sale on Amazon at this link:


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" Rendered in the Nadtsat Language of "A Clockwork Orange"

Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," John-Lewis "Translation" into Nadsat Lingo, or What Ole Elkin (Own) Selph Calls "Nod-soddy Teeny-bob":

The Rasoodocky

Twas dobby and the chellovecks—
That’s Pete, George, Dim, and me, the boss—
Did sit and drink some vellocet
When came this great goloss

“Beware the millicent, my droog!
His nozh to skrik, his hands that skvat!
Beware the staja godman well,
who vreds boys in their spat!”

I took my shlaga in my hand,
And said “Come malchiks, ookadeet!”
Then viddied I old Billy Boy
This did I gavoreet:

“Ho, ho! If it’s not stinking Bill,
I thought I nuked the smell of cal!
Come take it in the yarbles now,
You eunuch jelly thou!”

Bill dropped the young devotchka down
That they had stripped nagoy
He spat and flashed his britva out
And crarked “Let’s get ‘em, boys!”

One, two! Plesk, shive!
My brothers, ‘twas a glorious drat
They creeched and horned and dropped their knives
And ittied skorry back

Twas dobby, grand, and horrorshow
We droogs retired, fagged and fashed
I raised my glass of honeygold,
“A toast! To our next crast!”


Friday, May 15, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Maxim D. Shrayer, "Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story"


Maxim D. Shrayer. Leaving Russian: A Jewish Story. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2013. Illustrations, Index of Names and Places. xxii +  324pp. $29.95 (cloth).

Once, in Moscow, in his seventh-grade classroom Maxim Shrayer was passed a note, “To the Jew from the Russians.” Containing the usual message of bigotry—“You Jewboy son of a bitch,” etc., complete with misspellings—it was signed by two boys, both named Fedya, neither of whom had previously appeared particularly virulent in their anti-Semitism.

Episodes such as this were part of the normal life’s experience of a Jew in the Soviet Union. Prof. Shrayer’s book treats not only what it’s like to be a Jew in Russia, but also what it’s like to be part of a “refusenik” family. He was eleven years old when his parents decided to apply for emigration. After nine years of living in limbo, the family finally was given permission to leave when he was twenty.

Those nine years were, to put it mildly, full of stress. While describing numerous incidents of harassment, however, this book is not about a worst-case scenario, not about Jews who were hounded unmercifully to their perdition. There are probably other Russian Jews who could write such a story. Take the issue of bullying at school. Maxim Shrayer was harassed periodically, subjected to taunts, sometimes to collective jeers directed at Jews in general. But he was not bullied. Wisely his father taught him early on to fight, and fight he did. He seems to have had, always, a highly developed self-assurance. He was, as he himself says, outgoing, a “popular” schoolmate.

The what if question shows up, or is implicit, again and again in this book. First off, what if the boy had been introverted, shy, not a fist fighter? Plenty of Jewish boys are like that. Plenty of American children, Jewish and otherwise, are subjected on a daily basis to horrendous bullying in American schools today. It drives some to suicide.

What of his parents, Emilia and David Shrayer? What was their life like in the Soviet Union? Once again, the situation could have been much worse. “My mother and father had both reached professional prominence”(30). Emilia was a teacher of English and a translator. David was a successful doctor and a published author, a member of the Union of Soviet Writers. His pen name was/is David Shrayer-Petrov. Of course, after they declared their intention to leave, their lives changed drastically. No more Union of Soviet Writers, no more good jobs. But, lucky for them, they were able to find menial jobs, they were able to survive. Their only son was consistently successful at everything he did. He was bright, an A student, he had experiences that other Soviet students seldom have: working during breaks from his studies as an orderly in a hospital, riding horses at the Moscow race track.

By the time the family was finally allowed to leave in 1987, after nine long years of harassment and frustration, Gorbachev’s New Era was on the horizon, and on a different horizon—not far past that—was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The author himself poses the question, “Should we have left?”

“In some memories of my Moscow  youth I feel so at peace that I start wondering why I left in the first place. Had I experienced the best of friendships in the wrong place at the right time so I would then go on remembering the time even as I forget the place?” (117).

This book, despite the limbo and the stress of those nine years, is full of good friends, happy times and the halcyon days of youth. The chapter describing a university expedition to the south of Russia in 1986, when Maxim was studying in the Soil Sciences department at Moscow State University, is idyllic. The family’s yearly trips to Estonia for summer vacations are described as highly relaxing and appealing.

Prof. Shrayer is a published writer of poetry, fiction and literary criticism. Recently he published a fascinating book on the relationship between Bunin and Nabokov. He began his writing career while still a student in Moscow. The book is full of little details that embody Soviet life of the seventies and eighties, things that I myself recall from the many times I visited the country.

Caraway/coriander rye bread (“Borodinsky”), poplar fluff, fatback and sunflower seeds. Ah yes, Russia. The way you walk into a restaurant and never ask for a menu— because nothing on the menu is available. You just say, “What have you got?” This is such a normal situation that Shrayer doesn’t bother explaining it for the non-Soviet reader (116). And this: “One of the two bus drivers was a misanthropic middle-aged man who regarded his ochre-colored bus as a submarine under his command” (166). Ah, yes, you could write a whole book about Russian driving habits and the puffed-up pride that men take in being the all-powerful captain of the auto-ship.

And this: “The director [of the House of Culture] spent much of her time drinking tea in the company of two junior administrators, whose principal tasks were to brew tea and to pour it into cups” (50). When working for the Red Cross in Russia and Central Asia (1992-1993) I ran into hordes of these “junior administrators.” They were hired to be, largely, sycophants, while the director (and maybe one secretary) did all the work. That’s the way Russian institutions often operate.

Then there’s the yearly harvest, the days in late August when the big cities overflow with luscious watermelons and the denizens are afflicted with watermelon fever:

“The city streets reeked of rotting watermelons. . . . Street corners and areas in front of food stores would be filled up with cage-like metal containers full of watermelons. People congregated in front of the large metal containers, picking and choosing ripe melons, sniffing them, tugging at their twisted piggish stems, tapping and pressing at them like doctors giving an abdominal exam. Parents would lift up children and put them inside the containers, and children crawled over the mounds of white and green stripy balls. Emotions ran wild and people would get in fights over watermelons. Women would lean over dirty edges of the metal containers in order to reach for watermelons, and boys would peer at the ‘panorama,’ as we called it in our jargon, of underwear and garter belts. Streams of pink watermelon juice flowed down pavements and mixed with the Stygian waters of the city streets” (75). Stygian?

There are lots of other passages in the book striking for their literary merit and evocative of Russian quotidian life. The train cars of Russia, “stuffed with people like sausages are stuffed with meat, fat and fennel seeds” (xvi). “A flowering potato field we passed on the way to the whitewashed milestone where my father would get off the heaving bus, mesh sacks of groceries in both hands” (8). The “Soviet grandee Boris Rozanov,” who had “the large, jutting mauve ears of a pedigreed Chihuahua” (109). Not just a Chihuahua was Comrade Rozanov, but a Chihuahua with a pedigree!

What’s it like, leaving all these things behind—familiar things that constitute the everyday quintessence of your very life—and starting out in a new country, “the miracle country” (40) of American the Beautiful? Did the new country live up to the expectations of the Shrayers? This myth of America as Fairyland Wonder has a long history in Russia, dating back at least to the eighteenth century. Time and again in the great works of Russian literature characters and authors dream of leaving all their troubles behind and going to America. Just before shooting himself—in the presence of a Jewish watchman whose face “had the eternal expression of resentful affliction that is so sharply etched on every Jewish face”—Dostoevsky’s perverted Svidrigailov (in Crime and Punishment) says, “If anyone asks, say that I said I was off for America.” In the torment of his last years Tolstoy considered emigrating to America. In the Russian imagination America was the place where dreams came true.

As representative in flesh of the Great Myth an American in Russia always had a special status. On the unwritten list of national rankings America and Americans were number one. In 1972, for example, when I was at Moscow State University for the first time with a group of American Russian teachers—and where I probably walked past young Max Shrayer on the street—the American contingent received the highest stipend of any group there. The group leader of the North Vietnamese—with whom we were then at war, and with whom the Soviets were allied—went to the administration to complain. The Vietnamese received the lowest stipend, except, perhaps, for the Africans. He, the complainer, was quickly shown the door. How could a mere Vietnamese demand higher status than an American?

Then, in 2012, not having been in the country for several years, I went back to St. Petersburg and there I discovered the corpse of the old myth. I wasn’t special any more. It took the collapse of the Soviet Union to finally kill off the American dream in the Russian mind. For the first time in Russian history the citizens of the country were allowed to visit the U.S. They came in great hordes to the promised land. Some of them emigrated. Many of them were disillusioned. Guess what? It’s not a wonderland after all. But then, even if it had been a hundred times better than it really is, America could never have lived up to the dream. Russian visitors took that sad news back home with them, and the long-perpetuated myth expired.

It’s not for nothing that the book mentions an American TV documentary about Russians miserable abroad (224-25). My experience with Russians in the U.S. is that the great majority of them adapt, if at all, rather poorly to American life. Some of them go crazy. “The social stress of being an immigrant to a new country is one of the critical factors in developing schizophrenia” [David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (NY: Random House, 2011), p. 211].

But what about the Shrayers? We don’t know if they consider America enough of a dream to justify all their trials, what they had to go through to get here. Only another book by Maxim Shrayer will clear that up for us, for this one ends with their departure from the Soviet Union. He does, however, describe how it feels going back “home.” “While visiting Russia I now feel like a comprehending alien” (xix).

Being a part of the great Jewish community, of course, is a consolation, but, then again, there are big differences between Russian Jews and American Jews and Israeli Jews. Prof. Shrayer writes, “I have encountered American- and Canadian-born Jews who regard me and other ex-Soviet Jews with a mixture of solidarity, skepticism, and condescension—as somehow a lesser Jew” (113). He describes his anger when a rabbi in Boston informs him, “We’re going to grow you as a Jew” (114).

I often tell Russians and Russian Jews I know that a Russian Jew, in my opinion, is much more like a Russian than like an American Jew. Both the Russians and the Russian Jews get insulted when I say this. But I see the Russians—Jewish or otherwise—as often voicing the same opinions and playing the same games.. A friend of mine, laughing, once told me about his reception in Israel after leaving the Soviet Union: “In Russia they called us Yids; in Israel they call us Russians. We can’t win for losing!”

At one point Prof. Shrayer mentions “the members of the Soviet intelligentsia who wear masks in public and remove them from their faces when they come home at night, only to discover one day that the masks won’t peel off” (133). Yea, Bogoo, oh so true, but it’s not only the intelligentsia. The Soviet Union (and now Russia—nothing has changed in this respect) is a country full of people wearing masks. This book is full of the very Russian thing of pretending, faking it, telling untruths and half-truths. The chess games. I have known Russians who push this business to the point where they lie so much that they end up bamboozling their very selves. Russian refuseniks, however, were in a special situation; not only did they have to do the usual Russian prevaricating—they were forced to prevaricate at a still higher level!

Shrayer describes his romance with a young woman from another refusenik family, Lyuba, who remarks “how odd it was that we were refuseniks, our families had been oppressed by the Soviet regime, and yet we still remained brainchildren of the Revolution and subscribed to its myths” (136). Lyuba goes on to tell Maxim that they would have to keep their trysts secret from her parents. Why? Because her mother thinks she should already be married and having children. She would not approve of the still-too-young, “un-marriable” Maxim. So that’s the way it went, with Maxim’s parents knowing and Lyuba’s family “either not knowing or pretending not to know.” Later Maxim describes how he and his mother had a risky meeting with an American journalist, after which their cab was chased by an unmarked car. He was tempted to tell Lyuba about “the night chase, but I didn’t, deflecting Lyuba’s question with another half-truth about having been ‘occupied’ on account of my parents’ troubles” (151).

As part of my class on Russian folklore and folklife at Miami University I included a discussion of Russian mentalities. In that class there were often students who were born in the Soviet Union, or whose parents were. Once, when I was discussing the Russian games of lying and perpetual chess, one of my students raised his hand. Thoroughly puzzled (after all, he was American-born), he told the following story.

“My uncle Boris fell down the stairs drunk and broke his arm. Aunt Lydia, not even a member of our family, but some kind of cousin, came over and began telling us how we would present this event to friends and family. We would tell grandma that he fell, but he was not drunk. We would tell his brother that the arm was not really broken. We would tell Aunt Lena that he was walking backwards down the stairs, and the reason he fell was because someone left a book on the steps, and we would keep the whole thing secret from that horrible Masha Volkova—although she was bound to find out and spread her nasty gossip. What I want to know, though (said my student), Why can’t we just tell the truth?” Ah, the naïve American, who believes that truth can be told!

Prof. Shrayer mentions his encounter with an American professor in Moscow, who launched into a tirade on the games played in American academe. “I remember thinking, ‘How very enticing’” (233). Now a successful writer and university professor, Shrayer has almost certainly learned to play the American games well, but, after all, those games are child’s play for one who has grown up in the labyrinthine morass of game playing that is Russia!

Another example. Not many years back I met a Russian woman (let’s call her Galya) who wanted to be my friend. In her calculating Russian mind she pondered deeply on what she should tell me about herself to best appear in a favorable light. Although Galya was with her Jewish friend Tanya when we first met, she was careful to ensure me (several times) that she herself was not Jewish. Later I learned that she had emigrated to Israel; she had lived there twenty years and spoke Hebrew. She told me that one of her daughters had married a Jew and emigrated to Israel, and that’s how she and her husband had got out of the U.S.S.R. But she was not Jewish, no. Soon I learned that both her daughters were married to Jewish men. She gingerly fed me such information in small doses, a little at a time, so as to make it more palatable. Her automatic assumption was that I cared deeply whether she was Jewish or not. I didn’t.  

A few months later, while I was visiting Galya in Nevada, I noticed that all of her friends there were Russian Jews. She again assured me that she was not Jewish, although I never brought the subject up. Finally, just before I left, she informed me that one of her friends had told her she better own up. So she did. “I’m not Jewish, but I am kind of half-Jewish because my mother was Jewish.” What Galya, who had lived in the U.S. for several years but spoke little English and knew zilch about American mindsets, didn’t realize was (1) I couldn’t care less whether she was Jewish or not and (2) since I have been around Russians for many many years and am well-versed in Russian game-playing, I assumed from the very start that she was probably Jewish. In fact, I expect, momentarily, to receive from her the information that her father was Jewish too.

The Shrayers spent nine years playing the excruciating game of applying for exit visas. We are never told, but apparently this game works somewhat like the repetitive game of taking final exams in Russia. In a process that puzzles an America professor, as it puzzled me when I taught in Russia on a Fulbright, you never actually flunk a final exam. You get to keep taking it over and over until you pass. The Shrayers applied and applied, over and over, and their persistence finally paid off. In 1987 they emigrated to the U.S. Back now to an earlier question: would they have been better off never leaving?

One thing is for sure: the Shrayers, had they remained in Russia, would have found no diminution in anti-Semitism after the collapse of the Soviet Union— for disparagement of Jews is the default mode in the psyche of average Russians. I have run into it in my dealings with Russians and Ukrainians so often that it ceases to surprise me. Some of them are merely casually anti-Semitic; others are virulently so—“the kind of Russians who savor the word Kike in the mouth like a juicy fresh fig” (Nabokov). In my experience the Russians who are not anti-Semitic tend, nevertheless, not to discuss the topic of Jewishness, as if it were some taboo thing best left alone.

I can give you countless examples. Once I was sitting with a Ukrainian friend when Steven Spielberg appeared on the television screen. Apropos of nothing the Ukrainian remarked with a sneer: “I don’t care who gets the Academy Award, as long as it’s not that zhidyonok (little Kike).” I have special insights into bigotry, since I grew up in a little Southern racist town in the forties and fifties—surrounded by bigots of every stripe. One of the most common of bigots is the one who pushes hatred almost to the point of obsessive love.

I had one uncle who, no matter what the subject of conversation, would inevitably bring it back to “N-word.” He had N-word  and n’s on his mind day and night and probably in his dreams. If you were speaking of exploration of space, for example, he would say, “A n caint get a job as an astronaut, no way. A n ain’t got the brains for it.” A Ukrainian I knew was the same way about Jews—an obsessive love-hater. Talk about space exploration, famine in Africa, a meteor that fell on Buenos Aires, this Ukrainian, invariably, would bring in some disparaging something about Jews. Once she insisted that Gogol was a Jew. I said to her, “Listen, Marina, if Gogol was a Jew, then Pushkin was too, and we’re all of us, you and me and your aunt Matilda, Jews!”

Here’s an unfortunate fact about human beings: in one way or another we’re all bigots. Hard-wired deep into our brains is this fear and hatred of “the other.” Recent studies in brain science have revealed amazing things about human bigotry. People who are flaming liberals, who pride themselves on their sense of rectitude, sometimes participate in brain studies with neuroscientists and discover that—deep in the neurons of their brains—they are racists!

In July, 2006, when the actor Mel Gibson was arrested for speeding and driving drunk, he spewed out a tirade about how Jews are responsible for all the wars of the world. The next day, sober and contrite, Gibson issued a statement: “I said things I do not believe to be true and which are despicable. I am deeply ashamed of everything I said.” Later it turned out that Gibson had spent the afternoon before his arrest at the house of a Jewish friend. That friend described how Mel, when he’s drinking, “becomes a completely different person.” He went on to say, “If Mel is an anti-Semite, then he spends a lot of time with us [the Jewish man and his Jewish wife], which makes no sense.” [This episode is detailed in David Eagleman’s book Incognito, p. 101-104].

“There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.” So who is the real Mel Gibson, the bigot or the non-bigot, the friend or the enemy of the Jewish people? It’s an impossible question to answer, since the one-hundred billion neurons deep in our brains are—as Dostoevsky once wrote of man in general—“broad, way too broad.” They can accommodate racism and anti-racism and scads and scads of other viewpoints. Taking this broadness into account, we can easily believe Maxim’s old classmate, Fedya, in an e-mail he sent to the author in America. In that e-mail, Fedya, who had long since forgotten the mocking note he and the other Fedya signed back in the seventh grade, writes, “Can you really imagine that your nationality makes any difference to me?. . . . I was NEVER, even in childhood, when many things pass without our being conscious of them, permitted to place anybody beneath me, and especially on the basis of ‘skin color’” (28).

So the nasty note, which still lives on hurting in the psyche of the one offended, was probably forgotten immediately by the perpetrators, who were kids playing a silly prank and who consider themselves unbigoted. And, in some sense, they probably are not bigoted. But somewhere deep in their brains they still are. Life is complicated. At the moment of this writing there is a shocking article in the Atlantic titled, “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” The author, a Jew, concludes that, given the anti-Semitism of Islamic immigrants in European countries, given the danger to life and limb, it is indeed time for the Jews to flee Europe.

Unfortunately, the little ditties have enormous staying power. “Fatty, fatty, two by four, can’t get in the bathroom door, had to do it on the floor.” That comes out of my childhood, but you can count on its still being around now, directed maliciously at any overweight child anywhere in America. Two hundred years from now, assuming that human beings haven’t destroyed all life on earth by then, there will still be Russian children (and adults too sometimes) rattling off the Russian version of “Two Jews and a Kike went to Israel on a hike” (18). The Collected Works of Maxim D. Shrayer may be forgotten by then, but the ditties will still be around.

Would that it were not like this, but this is the way it is. Prof. Shrayer’s beloved Nabokov once wrote a novel, Despair, which has such a skewed narrative structure and such a brilliantly perverse narrator that you don’t realize, even dimly, what’s going on until you are three-quarters of the way through it. Then you read it again from a totally different perspective, and you begin “getting” it, but you have to read it at least one more time. Or two. Shrayer’s writings are not so complicated, but there is a parallel to be drawn here. We can’t be sure about some of the things in Leaving Russia without reading the next book, the one still not written. Did America prove to be worth it for the Shrayers? I dare say it was worth it for Maxim, but what about his parents? Would they have enjoyed their lives and found more gratification in life if they never had started the excruciating process of applying to emigrate, if they never had left Russia? Stay tuned for the next book, the one called (maybe) Living in America. There’s where you’ll find the answer to that question.

Friday, May 8, 2015

"Anna Karenina" TOLSTOY'S VOICE

Tolstoy, 1909

(23) Tolstoy's Voice in "Anna Karenina"

Somebody once said that you've can't even write your name without revealing a vast amount of information about yourself. This, of course, is true of professional writers, even those who follow religiously the rule of self-effacement in their art.

Tolstoy was not a self-effacer. He had strong opinions and expressed them incessantly and (for the most part) consistently in his works. He, of course, is also a marvelous creator of characters; his literary personages are some of the most believable, most rounded of all characters in world literature. These characters speak with their own voices, but underlying all the action is the voice of the omniscient, third-person narrator--that preaching, moralizing voice that is the author's. Or is it?

One of the most important things determining whether you, as a reader, like and enjoy "Anna Karenina" is how you respond to the moralizing voice behind it all. Some readers, who are vehemently opposed to the "message" of the novel--and the message, make no mistake, is highly conservative, especially by modern Western standards--react with revulsion to certain passages.

Here are examples of the narrator's voice:

(1) In sentences dripping with irony, Tolstoy describes a foreign prince visiting in Russia. This prince had been everywhere. In Spain he had "made friends with a Spanish girl who played the mandolin." In England "he had galloped in a red coat over hedges and killed two hundred pheasants on a bet." In Turkey he had got into a harem. Now, in Russia, he is out to experience all the quintessentially Russian pleasures of life: races and Russian pancakes, and bear hunts and troikas, gypsies and drinking parties, with the Russian accompaniment of broken crockery. But of all the Russian entertainments "the prince liked best French actresses and ballet dancers and white-seal champagne" (374, Part IV, Ch. 1).

Is Tolstoy's opinion that of the narrator here? From what we know of Tolstoy, probably yes. Would most readers agree with his implicit condemnation of the prince and his idle life? Probably yes.

(2) Lyovin, right after the passage where he meets Anna for the only time in the novel. "There are no conditions to which a man cannot become accustomed, especially if he sees that all those around him are living in the same way. Lyovin could not have believed three months before that he could have gone quietly to sleep in the condition in which he was that day, that leading an aimless, senseless life, living beyond his means, after drinking to excess. . . . . forming inappropriate friendly relations with a man [Vronsky] with whom his wife had once been in love, and a still more inappropriate call upon a woman [Anna] who could only be called a fallen woman, after being fascinated by that woman and causing his wife distress--he cold still go quietly to sleep. But under the influence of fatigue, a sleepless night, and the wine he had drunk, his sleep was sound and untroubled" (735-36, Part VII, Ch. 13).

What a cargo of moral rectitude this paragraph is transporting! Poor Lyovin, whose behavior is not all that reprehensible, is raked over the coals by his own conscience; the prosecuting attorney representing that conscience is the narrator of the novel. Does Tolstoy really believe that Lyovin's friendly attitude toward Vronsky is inappropriate or that Anna "can only be called a fallen woman"? Of course not. The whole book demonstrates his understanding that things are never as simple or easily explained as this. Here the narrator is Tolstoy as puritan and prig, or as Anna Akhmatova put it, these are "the attitudes of his wife and his Moscow aunts." But many readers are insulted by this priggish and hyper-puritanical voice. They attribute such moralizing to Tolstoy himself. This is an oversimplification. The voice is both Tolstoy's and not Tolstoy's simultaneously. His narrator is not always him. Or, perhaps a better way to put it: the narrator here represents only one side of the author, who, in the aggregate, is broad, very broad.

Examples of the narrator's moralizing tone are rife. The book is full of such passages. But Tolstoy the artist does not simply throw in his personal opinions in an inartistic way. Even his moralizing passages usually relate directly to the artistic structure or to the character around whom the moralizing is built.

Tolstoy once described the care he had taken in writing the passage about Lyovin's visit to the priest, to confess his sins before the Orthodox wedding (Part V, Ch. 1). Tolstoy writes that most people would assume that he is on Lyovin's side in this scene, expressing his own views through Lyovin. Not so, says Tolstoy; I was on the priest's side. Although Lyovin is certainly an alter ego of Tolstoy, although his opinions usually express those of his creator, this points up the danger of assuming that Tolstoy IS Lyovin or that Lyovin always expresses the author's ideas.

As for me, I rather enjoy being told the story in the typically Tolstoyan lulling voice of good sense and morality. When the book gets overly preachy I can just disagree and go with the flow. Something about Tolstoy's narrative voice soothes me. I cannot read more than a couple of Dostoevsky's works in a row, and I used to tell my students: don't try reading too much of Dostoevsky at a time. If you are a sensitive person, the almost hysterical tone of the narrative will make you ill.

Monday, May 4, 2015

"A Roast for Coach Dan Spear" BOOK REVIEWS

In 1997 U.R. Bowie (Robert Bowie) published this memoir about growing up in Central Florida in the fifties and playing high school football. Below are several editorial reviews, never before published in the same place.

(1) Richard C. Crepeau review, "Florida, Football and The Russians" (online)

(2) Andrew Doyle review, in "Journal of Sport History," Fall, 1999 (online)

(3) Ercel Eaton review in "Journal-News," Hamilton, Ohio

Ercel Eaton, Journal-News, Hamilton, Ohio, October 7, 1997

It starts out as a roast for a football coach but ends up a book about life in Smalltown, America. Robert Bowie, Hamilton resident and Miami University professor, is author of “A Roast for Coach Dan Spear,” a memoir about life in a small Florida town.

The thread that binds the book is a football game—one in which Bowie played in 1957—a game between rivals Mt. Dora High School and Bishop Moore Catholic of Orlando.

As the game progresses, stories and anecdotes unfold, centering on the life of the people of the 50s, a more innocent time. But the author slips back in time a bit as he relates his family’s story.

The 40s: “In a word, we moved. Right in the middle of the war. Daddy stuffed us into a ’38 Chevy: wife, two kids, huge old radio, two cats. My sister June, who’s a storyteller, swears we couldn’t get a moving van on account of wartime. So we packed our furniture in an army truck carrying explosives and followed the dynamite all the way to Florida.”

“I remember pulling up at the end of that long trip, in front of the house across from the football field. I was three years old, and that is the first memory of my life. Spanish moss on live oak trees. Poinsettias, sandspurs, hibiscus. Palms. Heat.”

In and out of the story come characters like those of any small town. Their stories are entertaining and comfortable. There is tragedy as well—disease and death strike indiscriminately.

Bowie writes the way he remembers: “This is a true story. Of course, when you recall things 37 years later, your memory gets creative. So people who were around then may have different recollections. All I can do is tell it the way I remember it.” Strange thing about memory is that we look at it through our own focus, sometimes fuzzing scenes that others see in sharp outline.

Racial strife ripped at the little town from time to time the same way it was ripping across the country. But the lives here were the ones known to the memory of the author and he tells their stories well.

“Well,” he writes, “everybody’s prejudiced in one way or another—it’s human nature. Biologically we’re haters and lovers both. People who get up on their sanctimonious high horses and start condemning human behavior ought to dismount and take a good deep look into their own insides.” Later in that same chapter he adds, “But no matter how much family, genes and society mess you up, you can still retain some human decency.”

As the book progresses so does the game, the downs, the scores, the hits and hurts. You find out, finally, who won. But it takes reading the entire book. And you’ll be the richer for having done it.

(4) Randy McNutt review in "Cincinnati Enquirer"

Randy McNutt, Cincinnati Enquirer, Dec. 13, 1997


To author Robert Bowie the 1950s and Mt. Dora, Florida, seem as quaint as an old home movie—well, almost. Dr. Bowie—Bobby then, and No.9 on the high school football team—lived in the same small town as L.C. “Larry” Smith, who wore pajama tops to school instead of shirts, as legendary football coach for the Golden Hurricanes, Dan Spear, and other colorful locals: such as Leebo McCree, Sellers Lovelady and John the Jew.

These characters come alive in A Roast for Coach Dan Spear, Bowie’s memoir that takes the reader from a small Florida town all the way into an unstable Russia in the 1990s. Along the way the Miami University professor weaves vivid images: a Russian airliner filled with cigarette smoke and broken safety belts, and a humid Florida football field where foggers spew insecticide on fans and players.

“The book started with a roast for my old coach in April, 1994,” said Bowie. “He is 80 years old now. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go to the roast, but I wrote something to be read there, and later it was duplicated and sent around to residents of Mt. Dora. Eventually it developed into this book.”

His thoughtful look at Southern life in the 1950s is also a history and social commentary. It is his first published work of nonfiction.

“I’ve had a really great reaction,” he said in his Miami office filled with Russian maps and engravings. “The book is not exactly G-rated, but it’s honest. People like that. They call me all the time and leave messages. One guy I hadn’t seen for 40 years.”

“And in the book there’s some frank treatment of the racial problems in my little town.”

He said that Mt. Dora had its share of white civil-rights sympathizers, but it also had the Ku Klux Klan and a quintessential rural sheriff, Lake County sheriff Willis McCall, who became notorious in the fifties.

One night in 1954 somebody burned a cross in front of Mabel Norris Reese’s house. When the liberal newspaperwoman complained that detractors had poisoned her dog with strychnine, authorities determined that the death was from natural causes. “I am glad to learn that the dog was not poisoned,” Sheriff McCall told the newspaper, “as I despise dog poisoners almost as much as I do a Communist.”

From Mt. Dora Prof. Bowie went around the world. He graduated from the University of Florida and Tulane before serving as a Russian translator in the army. He has worked for the Red Cross in Central Asia and as a consultant for large companies doing business in Russia.

In 1970 he came to Miami to teach Russian. Today he teaches Russian folklore and, in his spare time, runs his own small press.

“My literary agent, who couldn’t sell my novels in New York, said I should try writing something that was nonfiction to break in,” he said. “Later I decided to turn the original story—which concentrated only on the football—into a memoir. As each quarter of the football game progresses, there are digressions about growing up in my small town.”

Last summer Prof. Bowie, 57, of Hamilton, decided to publish 3000 paperback copies through his Ogee Zakamora Publications. The name comes from a term in Russian architecture. He hired a West Chester graphic designer to do the cover art and started writing.

“It didn’t take that long to write the book. The hard part came later—promoting it,” he said. “I had to self-publish because my agent said there was not a wide enough market for it. I’ve enjoyed the process, but it’s certainly no way to make money. I did sell $2000 worth of books, though, in Florida alone.”