The tour begins with a bumpy descent through New York City cloud cover. The pilot has been saying that it’s going to be a turbulent final thirty minutes—that everyone, including flight attendants, will have to take their seats. That doesn’t make it any less surprising when the clouds outside the windows give way to a low, impenetrable fog, and the plane starts to feel like a tree being shaken to see what fruit it might yield. A nervous flier, I’ve dispensed with Xanax because of all the responsibilities I’ll have upon landing and am now watching the flight path on the seatback-monitor, overcome by mute panic. It’s so bumpy, we do a loop over the Atlantic and attempt a different angle of approach. The woman next to me is terrified to see the “Time Until Destination” figure continuously grow and, to my great dismay, vocalizes her fear.
After ten minutes of vertiginous jostling, we land—hard.
Vladimir says to me the next day when I tell him the story: “You felt eternity’s breath, Max.”
Because the plane is late, Vladimir and his wife are already calling me to ask where to get a cab to their Brooklyn hotel when I touch down. I explain that the official taxi queues are the way to go—this elicits a chuckle and I assure them that they won’t be waiting for as long as the characters do in Vladimir’s novel—then they disappear into the cold, spitting Queens night. I wait for my bag and call an Uber to the apartment just north of Kensington where I’ll be staying.
Walking over to the pickup area, a wheel pops off my suitcase. I curse. It feels like Mercury is in retrograde. Later that night, as the New York Review Books publicist (Nick, my gracious host), his girlfriend and I drink a Scotch and discuss the days to come, I’m troubled by my inability to get in touch with Vladimir or his wife. They seem not to have connected to the hotel’s Wi-Fi. To prove that they’ve not been kidnapped or ended up at an entirely different Marriott somewhere else in the city, Francesca (Nick’s girlfriend and a writer working on a book about Gertrude Stein) suggests that I call the hotel to see if he’s checked in. He has arrived, I’m told. An hour before.
We say good night and I read until 3 a.m., waiting for the melatonin I took to carry me out until tomorrow.
As it turns out, the turbulent cloud cover crowning the NYC skyline during the plane’s descent was a warning sent north by Hurricane Ian. The weather will only worsen over the next few days, to such an extent that the outdoor fair portion of the Brooklyn Book Festival will be canceled the morning of, the brutal 50-mph gusts too much for the scaffolding of the publishers’ outdoor kiosks to withstand. (The gale-force winds, the low temperatures and the sharp-dripped walls of rain will end up temporarily costing Vladimir his voice.)
On the morning that the fair is canceled, a homeless person pulls the fire alarm at the Marriott and we’re forced outside. Vladimir asks me to take a picture of him with the firefighters, his hair as unruly as Boris Johnson’s in the wind.
On the way to the Brooklyn Book Festival panel Vladimir is speaking on, our Uber driver almost hits an old man. The driver and the man scream at each other, two dueling, expletive-filled rants. Vladimir grins and speaks to me in a hushed tone, never mind the fact that the driver can’t understand: “America really is a cinematic country. We’re living in a movie: first the hurricane, then the firefighters, now this…”
Still, it’s a bummer that walking around has to be so unpleasant. Every couple of days, Vladimir turns to me, shakes his head profoundly and laments: “But I brought white shorts and swim trunks! What the hell is this!”
On one of those days, we have to go to Philadelphia for a reading at the Free Library with Mark Krotov, the editor and publisher of n+1. Wanting to warm up and have a nibble before the event at a rather upscale simulacrum of a British pub, Vladimir asks what sort of rum they have and is given Bacardi.
“I can’t drink this rotgut!” he says after a single sip. “It’s pure alcohol! Max, you drink it.”
We come home on the Acela that same night after an hour spent killing time at the Amtrak Station in Philadelphia. Sitting on the benches next to a World War II memorial—a statue of an enormous angel holding a soldier—Vladimir has me take a picture of him with it. We drink Dunkin’ Donuts tea and eat old-fashioned donuts (which Vladimir is unimpressed by: “That’s something for teenagers, Max,” he says in English, just as he’ll later say about Milk Bar birthday-cake truffles. In fact, the only American dessert he’ll like at all will be brown-sugar-and-cinnamon Pop-Tarts, which he describes as a “succinct expression of American metaphysics”).
Back in NYC, we’re walking out of Penn Station to call an Uber and are mobbed by an enormous crowd near the entrance. It takes only a second to realize that there are almost no men at all in this loud, slightly drunken mob.
“We’ve been transported to a city of only women!” Vladimir exclaims, utterly overjoyed. It turns out that the Lizzo concert at Madison Square Garden has just ended. It’s also pouring, so we have to walk ten blocks to get free of the traffic and order an Uber.
The next morning, Vladimir will tell me that he watched four Lizzo videos upon returning to his hotel. Overwhelmed by the spectacle, he had to take a sleeping pill to fall asleep.
“That was powerful, Max. A mighty woman. That was America.”
Beyond the weather, another issue is that Vladimir will be almost perpetually without his phone. Neither of us can figure out how to purchase roaming on his German plan, and two days into the trip, his charger stops working. We have to meet each other by way of rigidly agreed-upon times, which usually involve me breathlessly running to catch the F-train for long rides—inevitably delayed by scheduled track maintenance—to his two hotels.
The lack of a phone brings with it a chain of unexpected consequences. Most serious of them comes to pass on the day I go to my New Jersey dentist for a routine cleaning (as a recent transplant to LA, I don’t want to give up my noninterventionist dental guru, afraid of what any Beverly Hills dentist would doubtless want to do to my mouth) and leave Vladimir to his own devices, but emphasize that he must be ready to hop into an Uber I call for him at 4:45 or risk being late to the 5:30 reception before the Columbia event. By this point, he’s moved on from the Brooklyn Marriott to a swanky Midtown hotel.
We touch base at 4:40 and I tell Vladimir to be sure he’s waiting by the main entrance, but his iPhone (charged at this point) goes out of range of the Wi-Fi. The Uber driver is still five minutes out, and once he’s a minute or two from the hotel, I call him, explaining what Vladimir looks like and is wearing: “a silver fox, handsome, debonair, with a white ski jacket, probably wandering the street in slightly flustered fashion.” The driver has no patience and cancels the ride almost immediately when Vladimir isn’t right outside.
Vladimir and I make the joint decision to order another Uber. I call the driver, whose name is Anthony, and expect him to also be pissed off and in a hurry. But he speaks in a gentle tone, and when I explain the situation, he gets serious about finding Vladimir and stays on the phone with me the whole time.
Vladimir’s not by the main entrance—not by the restaurant entrance either. On his own initiative, Anthony parks his car and gets out, beginning to bellow Vladimir’s name as he walks around the block. I’m nervous—by now we’re probably going to be late to the reception.
Eventually I hear Vladimir’s voice on the other end of the line.
“Yeah, man… it’s for Max; he wants to say hello.”
Anthony pulls up to the Columbia building thirty minutes later and I go to shake his hand. He’s massive, probably 6’10”, and with a full set of gold grills. I imagine him wandering the Midtown streets, calling Vladimir’s name in the pouring rain, Vladimir’s white locks blown back by the gusting wind. Cinematic.
Vladimir shakes his head with a big grin.
“You see, Max… I told you America’s a Christian country… this Anthony’s a blessèd fellow…”
After the event and a Slavic department dinner at a neighborhood Italian restaurant, I show Vladimir the jumbo slices at Koronet Pizza, a student haunt: a very effective hangover-prevention measure if you manage to eat them before falling asleep.
“Holy shit!” he practically shouts in Russian. “Now, that’s an American pizza.”
He declines to get a slice.
At our next engagement—at a MoMA cinema where, years before, I’d witnessed a fight break out between two old men during a particularly obscene moment in the director’s cut of Nymphomaniac—the novelist Blake Butler is determined to have Vladimir articulate his writing process. To understand (and have our four hundred-strong audience also understand) how the Sorokin-sausage is made.
“You’re asking me to let you into my writer’s kitchen, Blake… I’m afraid that won’t be possible…”
At which point I wonder: When Vladimir says “kitchen” here in America, is he thinking of the Koronet jumbo slices or of the brown-sugar-and-cinnamon Pop-Tarts? In any case, the spicy chicken and mezcal old-fashioneds Blake and I had before the event were a mistake and my stomach feels at least partially on fire. But I manage not to belch into my clip-on mic.
I walk Vladimir to his hotel afterwards; he’s too tired to go to the reception at the Russian Samovar. We’d read an early Turgenevian story (a “binary bomb”) with a very obscene ending right at the beginning of the event. As we pass by the three-griddle-wide display of chicken being fried by The Halal Guys, Vladimir says how happy he was about the audience’s uproarious reaction to the story… how happy he is about everything else too.
Right outside his hotel, Vladimir takes out his iPhone: “By the way, Max, my phone’s dead. What time shall we meet tomorrow?”
From this point forward, the trip takes on a visionary quality.
At Newark Airport, on our way to San Francisco, Vladimir is mesmerized by a giant display of Stephen King books. The only book more omnipresent than the O. Henry Prize anthology containing Vladimir’s masterpiece “Horse Soup” (which we find at every bookstore we peek inside of—even at airports) is King’s new novel, the abysmally titled Fairy Tale, which I’m tempted to read anyway. I suggest to Vladimir that reading a few sentences of Fairy Tale each time we see it will be a kind of American prayer—a fertilizer to cast over the soil of all our future literary endeavors in the U.S. We laugh and he reads a few sentences under his breath.
On the plane, then, as I read Samuel Delany’s Hogg, nervous about someone looking over my shoulder, Vladimir first sleeps, then watches The Northman.
At one point during the flight, the woman next to us mysteriously points her air vent directly at Vladimir’s head. Having almost lost his voice, and as a strong believer in widespread Russian notions of the dangers of fast air, Vladimir simply stands up and shuts the vent. The woman, clearly still anxious about COVID in her scrubs and goggles, stands up and opens it once more. I explain to Vladimir that we should just let it be, then get him a blanket from a flight attendant. Ten minutes later, the woman sitting in front of the air-vent lady does just as Vladimir had done—stands up and turns it off. But the woman in goggles does nothing—doesn’t even flinch.
Vladimir turns to me:
“Some things in this world just can’t be explained, huh, Max?”
He finishes The Northman as we land. The final shot of Anya Taylor-Joy bearing beautiful twins and Alexander Skarsgård ascending to Valhalla having barely faded from the seatback screen’s complicated optics, Vladimir yawns:
“What time is it, Max?”
Vladimir is so taken with this “hard drug”—his preferred term for powerful art—that he’s lost all sense of time.
The morning after we arrive at our Airbnb in SF, I wake up to a perfectly fried omelet at 8 a.m. and realize that this is exactly the omelet described in one of the vignettes from Part 1 of his famous debut novel, The Norm. Minus the fecal matter. I mention this to Vladimir.
“It’s just an omelet, Max,” he replies. “I think everyone makes them like this.”
We end up canceling one event because of Vladimir’s lost voice. Vladimir and I watch Blonde in separate rooms on our laptops, shouting out our common dismay at the screenplay’s incompetence.
The wind gusts off of the Bay, and the whole city is covered over in pea-soup fog. Vladimir stays in bed for our eventless first three days, trying to get his voice back. I listen to Red House Painters as I walk to the nearby Whole Foods in the morning to collect ingredients for folk remedies and various broths.
The Airbnb is well equipped with dishes and utensils, but the pot that Vladimir wants to use for chicken soup is filled up with oil—and it reeks. I tell Vladimir that this “mysterious oil” might well have been part of the metaphysical second half of his story “The Tobacco Pouch.”
“Ah, Max… you’re a romantic! It’s just old oil someone forgot in the pot. No mystery about it whatsoever.”
Even after Vladimir’s emptied the oil in the pot down the garbage disposal, its stench doesn’t go away for at least an hour.
Once he finally goes outside, Vladimir shakes his head and purses his lips: “But I brought white shorts and swim trunks! What the hell is this!”
Vladimir asks me to take pictures of him with Halloween decorations pretty much whenever we see them, and we go to a nearby burger restaurant twice in one day: Super Duper Burgers. Vladimir gets his burgers totally plain—he’s infatuated with the tastiness of the meat unto itself. I explain what a smashburger is (for these are smashburgers) and he decides that this plain burger is the best thing he’s eaten in America so far—which is why we go twice in one day. He’ll eventually rank Fatburger above Super Duper Burgers, also eating his burger there with nothing—not even cheese—on it.
Now recovered, Vladimir tells the audience at the Litquake event that he hasn’t been able to write a single line of prose since the beginning of the war. The next day, Vladimir gives a seminar at Stanford about one of his short stories before the main event, a public reading that evening. He chooses “Timka” (the title of which might well be translated to “Tiny Tim”)—a controversial selection, about anal sex, a mass shooting and a hamster that guards the gates to a Christian heaven. The crux of the discussion boils down to a somewhat impenetrable diagram he draws on the chalkboard and a question he poses to the whole audience:
“Who here believes in the immortality of the soul?”
Only three people raise their hands.
We go to dinner with a group of Stanford and Berkeley Slavicists after the reading. For the first forty minutes, Vladimir and I are seated by ourselves with the event organizer at an enormous table. As it turns out, the reservation was somehow split into two and the other sixteen people are sitting outside. The maître d’ apologizes profusely.
The pizza is delicious, but for dessert, they bring out a species of panna cotta that’s both rock-hard and tastes like fossilized yogurt. I decline to eat mine, but out of politeness (and perhaps urged on by the professor next to him who perpetually exclaims, “I simply adore panna cotta”), Vladimir eats all of his.
As we’re leaving, Harsha Ram, a Berkeley professor with a cult leader’s palpable charisma, tells us that the Duboce Triangle, where we’re staying, is a “haunted neighborhood.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Vladimir replies.
That night, dreaming of a high school crush calling him to say that her parents are out of town, Vladimir suddenly wakes up, intensely nauseous. It’s 3 a.m. The “hard panna cotta” is having its way with his stomach.
He gets up, trying not to gag, and makes a cup of chamomile tea, then sits on the window seat looking out onto Henry Street. The nausea soon passes, but just as he’s about to retire once more, someone rings the doorbell. He waits for a second ring or a word of explanation, but there’s nothing.
The mysterious oil, the hard panna cotta, the doorbell ringing in the middle of the night: all signs of some other realm—one of portents and talismans—lying behind the hustle and bustle of these last two weeks. It’s not too difficult to think of what that realm might be.
Another hard landing at LAX, but the weather here is balmy (though still somewhat misty—“The pirates from The Fog have followed us!” Vladimir exclaims) and, at last, he gets to wear his shorts.
A successful event at UCLA attended by pretty much only Russians, so almost no one needs me to interpret—but I still do, translating even the audience questions (some of which are two or three minutes long). It’s like a speaking exam for a language class administered by two hundred teachers at once. I pass with flying colors.
On our last morning—after sixteen days of plain burgers and Pop-Tarts—we’re eating steel-cut Irish oatmeal. It doesn’t really adhere to Vladimir’s notion of what “kasha” should be, but I explain that it’s likely what Joyce would have eaten in the mornings.
“Ah! Now I get it…” he takes a somewhat dainty bite. “This stuff certainly could give one the power to write Finnegans Wake. A mighty substance.”
I tell him that the NYRB publicist wants me to write a piece about the tour and that a few magazines are interested.
He smiles wryly.
“Well, Max… I think you’ll have to tell the story of my dinner with the Columbia professor at Nusr-Et…”
Vladimir’s favorite neighborhood spot is a Turkish steakhouse around the corner from his apartment in Berlin; as such, he was initially intrigued by Salt Bae’s restaurant—next door to his Midtown hotel—until I explained that the U.S. locations were famous for how expensive (and undelicious) they are. Conceptually, this made him more interested, but in terms of where he’d actually like to eat—markedly less so.
“You’ll have to tell them about how the Russian professor had invited me, so I thought he was going to pay. But then, he tried to stick me with the bill and we got into a huge fight. And eventually ended up splitting it half and half: two thousand bucks each… Then you’ll have to explain how I bought a George Foreman grill to make my own steaks in the hotel room, setting it up right there on the bed. You see… I had to find a more economical way to eat this beautiful American meat. The night after my dinner with the Columbia professor, I fried three pounds of deluxe dry-aged steak on the bedsheets, not realizing that the bottom of the grill was searing the mattress. Soon enough, the bed was destroyed. I nearly wept with fear. I couldn’t imagine how much this would cost at a fancy New York hotel—way more than the Turkish-steakhouse dinner… Then you’ll have to tell them how I spent two terrible nights sleeping in the smell of scalded fabric and reciting prayers from my copy of King’s Fairy Tale—prayers that I wouldn’t be charged for a new mattress. You’ll have to tell them about how, on my last night in NYC, the pirates from The Fog came in through my open window to repair the mattress. My prayers had been answered! Then tell them about how the application of the fog from which they’d emerged to the bed repaired the damage done by the George Foreman grill almost instantly. About how the pirates fixed my charger too. And gave me my voice back. Tell them that all I’m taking back to Berlin is dry-aged steak and the greasy George Foreman grill. Maybe some Pop-Tarts too—if there’s room in my bag.
“Tell them that this is how a Russian writer spends his time in the USA…”
He takes another nervous bite of oatmeal. Then smirks mischievously, pleased by the might of his own imagination.
So, there you have it, oh American reader: this is how a Russian writer spends his time in the USA.