The Free World

By David Bezmozgis

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

356 pp. $26

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Reviewed by Mike Fischer

The Free World

, David Bezmozgis' first novel, begins its journey in much the same way as the Krasnansky family it features: with the promise of good things ahead.

We first meet the Krasnanskys in a crowded train station in Vienna, Austria, where three generations of them are midway in their journey from Latvia to the West.

It is 1978. The Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky is about to be convicted of spying and treason, and Leonid I. Brezhnev is in power. Given that all but one of the Krasnanskys are Jewish, starting over elsewhere seems like a good idea. In a series of short, deftly interwoven chapters, Bezmozgis introduces us to his cast of characters.

The family's titular head is Samuil, a former Red Army officer and unregenerate Stalinist who had watched the Whites murder his father when he was 6. Samuil's wife, Emma, is a warm, 53-year-old doctor whom Samuil consistently underestimates.

Karl, their eldest son, never met an angle he couldn't play. Karl's 26-year-old brother, Alec, is a playboy who wants to leave Latvia so he'll have "more freedom to bumble." Karl's wife, Rosa, wants their two young sons to grow up in Israel. Alec's 28-year-old wife, Polina, is a shiksa who left her first husband to marry Alec.

The Krasnanskys land in Rome at a halfway house where émigrés like them await word that they can move on to final destinations in other countries. Covering a five-month period, the rest of The Free World unfolds there, where it too often seems lost in transit and unsure what comes next.

Hitherto a short-story writer, Bezmozgis seems overwhelmed by the array of choices a novel provides. Like the proverbial kid in the candy store, he wants to try everything.

Having just finished getting his main characters on stage, Bezmozgis' attention is already wandering elsewhere.

We're introduced to minor characters with sketchy backstories that don't add up to a convincing whole, as with the ex-Soviet and ex-Israeli Lyova, who has left a wife and child he adores in Israel in the name of an abstract and unconvincing rebellion against Israeli militarism. Worst of all, we're treated to a boring subplot featuring Russian gangsters that takes the long way around the barn to prove what a fool Alec can be - which in turn raises questions as to why Polina would have ever married him.

We never get an answer to that question, because all of the women in this novel are chronically underdeveloped - except when it comes to Alec's fantasies about their bodies.

Bezmozgis indulges Alec's limited imagination often enough to raise questions about whether it is Alec or he himself who is panting over "a figure that seemed to strain the laws of physics" or sharing ruminations like "there were very few women who possessed perpetual mystery."

I'd have gladly heard less from Alec if it had meant hearing more from his father, even though Samuil already has more airtime than any character in the novel.

Although Samuil makes a bad first impression as a stubborn and crusty apparatchik from a failed system, Bezmozgis gives him room to reminisce about a bygone time - punctuated by the Russian civil war, the rise of fascism, and the titanic struggle with the Nazis - when it was possible to see the Kremlin as a lonely beacon in a darkening time.

Some of those memories have the chalky taste of undercooked research. But the steady accretion of historical detail eventually works, transforming an old man who can admittedly seem ridiculous into a dignified figure who commands our empathy and even our respect.

The Free World has other strengths as well. It is sprinkled with sharp aphorisms. Even its flattest characters generate witty and often bitterly sardonic dialogue.

Most important, The Free World embodies the malaise, which would become common after 1989, of people who had finally won the freedom to move, only to learn that there was no place to go.

Mike Fischer is a Milwaukee writer and lawyer. His review appeared originally in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.