Leslie Epstein

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David Bromwich

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[In "P. D. Kimerakov"], a Russian scientist—like Nabokov's Pnin but even more muddled and less adept at concealing the muddle—finds himself drafted for cultural exchange and loses his heart to an American dancing girl who is managed by an improbable, mayhem-loving C.I.A. operative called L. T. Kapp. Hilarity is always ready to score in this sometimes over blown book, and it often sounds forced. This defect may be a sign of Leslie Epstein's honesty; he cannot hide the essential grimness of this particular corner of history, and he knows that pathos will be at war with buffoonery throughout his story. Unfortunately, the result leaves him with a narrative tone that is vague and in-between and not really comprehending. Yet there is an ease and warmth in the telling, and a nice crowding of the plot with minor characters, which make one read on….

Kimerakov's oppressive life at home and his urge to invent models, religions, truths, his tireless and fascinated observation of spiders as they too grow old, his fiercely checked seduction of Larisa—comes through marvelously in the nervy and elegant style Epstein has chosen for it. He imparts a grandeur, not quite expressible, touchingly awkward, to this hero who "walked a bit like a waiter, smoothly, balancing instead of dishes a delicate heart."

The opening scenes in Russia show Epstein at the top of his form. And these are repeated, with something of their original force, near the close of the novel, when Kimerakov discovers his laboratory in disarray and finally is expelled from the Academy of Sciences, U.S.S.R. The American interlude, however—the experience of conversion, which ought to stand at the center of the story—is a disaster.

When in doubt, Epstein resorts to slapstick, though nothing could be less likely to refine his moral. In the background loom various menacing and ill-defined figures; dream and reality overlap, perhaps deliberately, but it is not clear why they should; Kimerakov's encounters with a nameless black prostitute (also C.I.A.?) are especially perplexing. L. T. Kapp for his part comes from a different sort of book, and the game he talks is pure Perelman, as when he parodies Stalin asking the intellectual to sign a confession. Confession of what? "Your innermost thoughts that I happen to know from reading your mind. Go ahead, put your monicker down. This, by the way, is a real Dunhill pipe." Misplaced wit of this order, like its spawn, the harmless whacko violence, derives not from a cunning shift of gears but from an unwitting change of modes.

The narrator of "P. D. Kimerakov" is an insipid Party functionary: the hack-exhortations are in his mouth but, it would seem, so are the passages in which Epstein assures the reader of his own very considerable lyrical gift. Again, the confusion can hardly be called a fruitful mix—it's a mix-up—though the self-deflating rhetoric can be wonderfully funny in spots, as in a caveat against dreams…. Yet one would gladly sacrifice such outbursts for a narrative plan that truly licensed Epstein to deal with the full range of human feeling.

Isolated details in this novel have a deftness and charm of which the whole is unworthy. If only Epstein had let the story carry him where it would, and not decided, as he must have, to make a try at broad comedy under the oddest of handicaps. At all events this first novel should lead to others. Readers who enjoy its opening will be charmed by incidental virtues and forgive the mostly bumpy ride that follows. The echoes of Bellow here are so overt that Epstein can occasionally sound like Herbert Gold; and yet one senses in him what is rare enough at any time: the presence of a sly, appealing, grave and humorous talent that will eventually write its own rules.

David Bromwich, "Pain Does a Ninotchka," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 10, 1975, p. 6.

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