On Russia, With Love

Gary Shteyngart sings the blues; Tribeca Film Fest goes Bang Bang

They say Jews and Italians are basically the same, but with different food. I think it's really Russians and Italians who are the same—or rather, one Russian in particular, writer Gary Shteyngart. The celebrated author commemorated the publication of his second novel, Absurdistan, at the Russian-themed bar Pravda last week, getting his guests drunk on Russian vodka and handing out CDs of him reading a chapter ("Gary sings the blues!" he said cheerfully). Shteyngart is prone to waving his hands in the air and saying "Ey!"—like my Italian grandmother. He did write the follow-up to The Russian Debutante's Handbook while living in Rome, which led me to wonder: Which other foreign place will he live in while writing about all things Russian? Thailand may be next but, he exclaimed, "I just got back from Brazil!" which he accompanied with the hand gesture. "Everyone is hot!" he added, fanning himself. Maybe he is my Italian grandmother.

I tried to extract embarrassing stories about Shteyngart from our mutual friend, his high school pal Adrienne Day. She started to tell me a tale involving barter money, the Mafia, and Robert De Niro—which confirmed my Guido theory—but was interrupted when his editor, Random House bigwig Daniel Menaker, read a letter from Gary proposing a book called A Million Little Da Vinci Codes of JT Leroy, adding that the new novel resembles something called Anna Karenina, in which life in Russia is Very Hard. "I stole some of that. I admit it. I stole it. I'm sorry." Busted.

The crowd was filled with serious- seeming literary types, and since I only read Gawker, Star, and my e-mail, I couldn't identify anyone who wasn't Carlos D., and had to be told. On hand: novelists Gabe Hudson and Chang-rae Lee, Slate peeps Jacob Weisberg and Megan O'Rourke, The Paris Review's Philip Gourevitch, and New York mag's David Amsden, who is on the exact opposite beat as me (he's Poor Little Rich Kids, I'm Fake-Poor Little Rich Kids). "I'm sorry I don't have anything snarky to say," apologized Amsden. (That's OK, I just took care of that.)

Honorary Italian grandmother Gary Shteyngart
photo: Tricia Romano
Honorary Italian grandmother Gary Shteyngart

The next night, I went to a Tribeca Film Festival screening of Brothers of the Head, about conjoined twins fused at the lower chest who are sold into a punk band by their father. Co-directed by Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton (the duo behind the doc Lost in La Mancha), it's a pitch-perfect mockumentary of the rise and fall of a band—audience members walk out thinking that the band, the Bang Bang, is actually real. No, no.

Yes, yes, said Pepe at the after-party thrown by Tokion at the Motor City Bar. "I hear people saying, 'I think I've got their CD at home.' " Like the makers of another recent musical mockumentary, It's All Gone Pete Tong, they've helped along the fake-real-band thing. In England, merch was for sale on eBay, white-label records were pressed up, and naturally, the band's got a MySpace page. Coupled with the sepia-toned images and the unvarnished songs written by Clive Langer, the film feels very Iggy Pop Raw Power.

Insert ill-gotten segue here: Speaking of bang bangs, Hot 97 is facing eviction by its landlords, the Carpenters Pension Fund, for a series of altercations and shootings inside or near the building. The court doc is unintentionally hilarious—it explains how rappers arrive with "so-called posses or entourages," mocks 50 Cent and the Game as "two crack dealers turned 'artists' " (note the quote marks around the word artists), and actually has a section titled "Promoting 'Feuds' or 'Beefs' Between Rap Artists."

Among the "shocking allegations" (note the quotation marks, mine): Puff Daddy and his 15-strong entourage arrived at the station "noticeably smelling of marijuana" on one occasion and were "rude and disrespectful" to security on another. But any business—let alone a radio station— that's been the site of three shootings should probably move to a desert island. And to think they shut down clubs for having "illegal" dancing. (Quotes mine.) Lame, lame.


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