In 1860, just before the start of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant was leading a quiet—by some accounts, despondent—life in rural Illinois, working as a clerk at a leather store. He responded immediately to the eruption of hostilities between the North and South and went on, of course, to become a general and ultimately president. In Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald compares his protagonist to Grant during the period before the war: “[T]he hero, like Grant, lolling in his general store in Galena, is ready to be called to an intricate destiny.”
Though one can’t help but wonder: What if there had been no call to arms? Would Grant have spent the rest of his life in a self-imposed purgatory, hawking dry goods and hoping that a war would come along to rescue him and plunk him down into the role of hero? Waiting to be called to his destiny must have felt both temporary and endless.
In One More Year, her outstanding debut collection of short stories, Sana Krasikov, a Ukrainian-born New Yorker, tunes into the same frequency. Her subjects, many of whom are Eastern European immigrants settled in America, struggle with predicaments—initially intended to be short-term—that they fear are becoming permanent.
The book’s title is lifted from her story “Maia in Yonkers,” about a woman working as an aide to the elderly and sending money back to Tbilisi, Georgia, where her teenage son lives with relatives. He arrives on a visit to New York under an assumed identity, carrying someone else’s passport, needed for his interview at the embassy. A requisite for visiting the U.S. is convincing “the man that you had something to return to.” Maia’s son expresses frustration that their much-talked-about plans for his moving to America never happen. He laments: “Every year you say, ‘It’s one more year, one more year!’ ”
As Krasikov’s characters move away from home, it’s unclear whether leaving loved ones behind allows for a new life elsewhere. The cost of abandoning children is paid in sleepless guilt, the money earned by scrubbing toilets and changing sheets spent on phone calls and gifts. Throughout these stories, adults keep one foot in the U.S. and the other in the Old World, or return to Russia only to discover that their native country has become foreign to them. This sense of transience—fueled by the belief that their current conditions will give way to something lasting and better—also translates into reckless decisions about relationships. In “Better Half,” a Russian college coed working as a waitress marries for a green card, with violent results. In “The Alternate,” a lonesome, middle-aged man clumsily attempts to start an affair with the grown daughter of his deceased lover.
Krasikov’s stories, several of which have been published in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, will draw comparisons to those of Jhumpa Lahiri, a master at depicting the generational and familial conflicts of Indian immigrants with precise, surprising details that evoke the universality of her themes. Krasikov’s best writing offers perfectly rendered depictions of love and envy, and all of the grasping ways in which people seek to close the divide between what their lives are and what they want them to be. Observing how freely the dying woman in her charge spends money, Maia thinks: “When the past is disappearing so quickly, what’s left of a person but momentary pleasures?”
Krasikov’s writing is short on humor, but this is only an unflinching reflection of her characters’ lives. Each of these seven stories illuminates the fallacy of hoping that patience and suffering will lead to a state of happiness.