Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Gorky Park was hailed as a superb thriller on publication, and it quickly became a best-seller. Critics were impressed not merely by the style and presentation of action but also by the author’s astonishing knowledge of the Soviet Union. The novel gives the feel of traveling Moscow streets, of delving deeply into the government bureaucracy and everyday life. What it felt like to work in the country, to be a member of the Communist Party, to go to a party, spend a day at home—all kinds of activities are brought to life in an engaging tale of suspense.

Since the novel was published well before the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, Western readers also found it a novelty to be rooting for a Soviet hero. Even though Arkady is a misfit, he is a “comrade,” a member of Soviet society, and he remains Soviet even when he is transported to New York. He thinks only of returning after the crime is solved, for his identity has been formed in the Soviet Union; whatever his society’s faults, he must return home. This means abandoning Irina, whose dream has been to reach the United States. Arkady cannot imagine emigrating, no matter how much he loves her.

In his basic patriotism, Arkady resembles the detectives in American stories, who may be hypercritical and aloof, but who also stand for and reestablish the society’s basic values. The system may be corrupt, but the detective with integrity cleanses it, if only in some small part, by solving a crime.

Arkady has become a series character, making appearances in the subsequent novels Polar Star (1989) and Red Square (1992). Although the times change, the politics differ, Arkady’s weary yet resilient character remains basically the same. Like all detectives, he aims to restore order, to act as a symbol of justice, however flawed he and the system might be. His tenacity is life-affirming, no matter how disappointed he may become. He does not really expect to be happy, yet he endures.