THE DISSIDENT, by Paul Goldberg
The sociological description of 1970s Soviet activist life that Paul Goldberg layers onto his new novel, “The Dissident,” is as thick, gleaming and rich as a slab of fatback on rye.
A wedding table in the first chapter groans with two kinds of fatback, in fact, along with jellied meat, pickled cabbage, eggplant caviar, sprats, sardines and “slippery” marinated mushrooms.
In Chapter 2, when the groom has to change into clothing given to him by visitors from the West, items he’d been hoping to sell, Goldberg lists Levis, suede moccasins, a puffy L.L. Bean jacket and a T-shirt that reads “Don’t blame me! I voted for McGovern.”
The bride recalls a childhood assembling packs of onionskin paper interlarded with carbon paper, which were fed into typewriters to make samizdat. On a vintage typewriter such as an Underwood, she remembers, it was possible to hammer out a dozen typescripts at a time, but on “a new East German piece of junk, an Erika,” the type bars hit only hard enough to imprint half as many.
Almost every time a character deploys Russian slang, Goldberg supplies the dialogue in its “original” Russian — usually in Cyrillic characters — either in a footnote or sometimes in the text itself, “for (A) the amusement of native Russian speakers, and (B) creating a complete and reliable historical record.”
The detail throughout is savory, but it is spread not on a hunk of hearty bread but on a murder-and-espionage plot that doesn’t make much sense. The young Jewish dissidents Viktor and Oksana, whose nuptials follow a six-week courtship featuring a comfort-food crawl of Moscow (pirozhki, “fruit-flavored” Soviet ice cream and hot doughnuts), are hoping that Soviet officials will grant them permission to emigrate to Israel. When Viktor briefly leaves the wedding ceremony in search of three Jewish elders to solemnize it, he stumbles onto a crime scene: Two acquaintances of his have been murdered with an ax, apparently in the middle of a gay (or “light blue,” in the Russian argot that Goldberg supplies) tryst.
One of the men was a samizdat poet turned black marketeer; the other worked for the American Embassy and, we learn later, the C.I.A. Viktor keeps shtum about his discovery, so as not to jinx his and Oksana’s chances of emigration, let alone their tickets to a performance of Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard,” starring the singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky, three days later. But of course the K.G.B. finds out anyway and brings Viktor in for questioning — and then deputizes him and his friends to solve the crime within a week.
The rationale for this twist is that a visit from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in seven days has the K.G.B. in a panic about having no explanation for the death of an American asset. But the twist seems a little improbable, even to a reader who can’t decipher Cyrillic footnotes.
It also seems unlikely that in a social circle of dissidents depicted as tightknit, no one would get around to asking if anyone has seen the dead men lately until Page 301, especially given that one of them, a longtime agitator known as the King of Refuseniks, lived in an apartment building with a shared bathroom. Or that, in such a social world and under such living arrangements, no one would have known they were gay until their corpses were found on top of each other. (Weirdly, after a third character is ax-murdered, he, too, is posthumously revealed to have been gay. These fellows should be more careful!)
The twist also has the effect of frustrating, and morally wrong-footing, any reader with the fairly natural desire to know who swung the ax, because Viktor puzzles for a very long time over whether it’s right to collaborate with an unjust government for a just cause.
In the meantime, which is most of the novel’s second half, the story is given over to the swashbuckling adventures of a Polish-Jewish-American retiree, who during World War II escaped a concentration camp and fought as a partisan; he comes to Moscow to visit his journalist son with a suitcase full of illicit rubles. The retiree is soon brawling with K.G.B. plainclothesmen, speaking Yiddish with Muscovites and buying horseradish, two kinds of sausage and green onions. And fatback. With so many strong flavors, in such generous portions, it’s probably wiser to enjoy this book not as a meal but as a series of small plates.
Caleb Crain is the author of the novels “Necessary Errors” and “Overthrow.”
THE DISSIDENT | By Paul Goldberg | 411 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $28