I'd never read anything by David Bezmozgis, a Latvian-Canadian writer and filmmaker, but this new story in Harper's looked promising, on account of an excellent title and the dialogue indicated by little em-dashes, which for some reason seems aesthetically comforting to me, these days. In addition, I once did a no-quote-marks book myself and was surprised how bent out of shape a few people got about it...so I feel a kinship.
Anyway. The story is about a physical therapist, an immigrant from someplace, we imagine, not terribly far from Russia. He has set up shop in Toronto and done well for himself being an honest businessman, but his teenage son doesn't understand him and some sleazy people want him to provide a front for their prostitution business. That's the proposition--that he take some easy dough for this purpose. Meanwhile a more recent immigrant from the same place wants to buy his old car.
We don't find out if he accepts the proposition (well--he rejects it. But we know the pimp will be back); rather, in a nice writerly sleight of hand, we see him refuse to sell his car to the recent immigrant, even though he's only 150 bucks short and reminds the therapist of himself, back in the day. And the teenage son is angry at him for not giving the guy the car. But, in the end, the therapist thinks,
It was for his son's own good. One day he would appreciate what his father had done [...] Life was painful and hard, and it did you no good to pretend otherwise. This was what he needed to understand.
Oh, the irony!!! I doubt I'm alone finding this ending a little unsatisfying, given that we have seen this very transferrence played out about a zillion times over the past 75 years of immigrant-themed fiction. Let me say that, overall, I like this story pretty well--the pimp and the prostitute who visit the physical therapist's office are particularly terrific--but it seems styleless in delivery and overly familiar in tone.
The therapist, by the way, is Roman Berman, apparently the subject of a previous story of Bezmozgis's, from a book of stories which James Wood digs big time, and which he compares to the stories of Chekhov and refers to as "true examples of storytelling." Hmm. I realize that we are supposed to recognize Wood as the arbiter of all things literary, but this seems like a stretch to me, at least based on this piece. It's good, but the reason Chekhov is good is that he is unmistakeably Chekhov at all times, whereas Bezmozgis, at most times, could be anyone at all.
That said, the anyone he might be is a pretty good writer, and perhaps I would like more of him. I'll check out Natasha and Other Stories but resist, for now, the mesmerizing power of the Woodman's cry.