Laurence Walker’s debut novel opens on a high wire between the noir and the literary. Here’s an obviously talented writer with an instinct for giving and withholding detail, at once building and satisfying tension. His technique hints at a pulse just below the surface, something buried alive beneath layers of detail, which the author promises to pull back slowly, one-by-one.
On the surface a Russian and an Englishman share drinks outside the dingy “Nirvana” café. Below, a thug bullies unworldly expat James Eastaway, offering to exchange a “tacky Casio” for James’ watch. At least the Casio has a history: it belonged to the Russian’s grandfather, who died, then his grandmother, who also died. Dismayed at his chances, James quips, “Doesn’t seem to bring the wearer much luck.” Then the banter goes dark: James insists on having his watch back and leaves Nirvana under threat of force. But cosmic injustice hasn’t laughed its last, not until weeks later when James passes the café and finds the Russian lying beneath rubble, victim of some undistinguished violence. James’ watch is still on the Russian’s wrist, lost forever to both.
It’s a solid start to Under a Russian Heaven, but the sense that details are freighted with import soon gives out under their own mounting weight, and much of the initial tension is lost before the central dramatic action—a romance—picks up. James’ account of his months teaching English in Volgograd might be more compelling if it focused less on the countless glasses of vodka and bottles of beer he consumes with his boss, his friends, and his students, and focused more on exploring a darker corner of the plot. For example, there’s rich terrain in a narrator who rushes to self-preservation by wrapping the fresh corpse of a beautiful young woman in plastic and sinking her with a rusting tractor part to the bottom of the Volga. A nice playground for noir. Fertile soil for crime fiction. But the prospect only comes in the final quarter of the book.
Instead the narrator is burdened with the job of describing everything he encounters. Walker is a journalist, and his novel might be compared to decent travel writing. It’s filled with detailed observations and well-rendered settings, certain to be of interest to those considering a trip to Russia. And Walker unearths some cultural gems—or is it common knowledge that Russians sniff bread to clear their heads of vodka’s “violent” taste? Walker knows how to build setting, with detail enough to let the mind’s eye grasp a place before trusting the reader’s imagination to take over, and his characters live and breathe as individuals. But even his finest writing gets caught from time to time on clumsy sentences like: “Coming from a small country, long-distance travel always seems exotic”. The narrative runs heavy on adverbs, “quite” being a common horse in his stable (he uses the word 77 times; compare that to 52 uses of “vodka” in a book awash in Russian drinking).
Despite a handful of deaths, a few frights from Russian goons, and one hot-blooded murder, Under a Russian Heaven reads more like a drunken expat story with a twist of gap-year romance than it does a book about crime. Towards the end James reflects on his experience, noting “I’d become fairly emotionless”. Do we sympathize with? Forgive him? He’s done the unforgiveable, dumping a perfectly good corpse into the river for fear of what a gangster will do to him over the death. But Walker has at least given us this chance to consider the broader psychological issue of a man who denies his beloved a proper burial, and then murders the woman audacious enough to mock him for it. Even if he misses the chance to put flesh on the bones of these dark possibilities.
By Laurence Walker
280 Steps, April 2014
Reviewed by Ben East (www.benonbooks.com)
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Ben East has completed various teaching and diplomatic assignments in Africa, the Middle East, and throughout the Americas over the past two decades. His fiction and reviews have appeared in The Foreign Service Journal, Peace Corps Writers, Atticus Review, and Umbrella Factory Magazine. He compiles his work here: www.benonbooks.com