Tuesday, January 14, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev

Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev (translated from the Russian by Michael Henry Heim) was a Christmas gift, so it didn’t sit long on my TBR pile.

M. Ageyev is a pseudonym. The author is suspected to be Mark Levi, a Russian emigre in Paris. The novel was first published in 1934. It was rediscovered and translated into English in 1984.

The narrator/protagonist, Vadim Maslennikov, is a disturbed, disturbing adolescent from an impoverished Russian household. His father is dead. Vadim is ashamed of his dreary mother who sacrifices everything for him. His cruelty to her is horrifying. Despite his laziness and aimlessness, Vadim believes himself to be exceptionally smart and on the path to becoming a wealthy lawyer.

The first part of the book covers his school days. The school is filled with awful people. Vadim fits right in.

After graduation, he settles into a life of bumming around, borrowing money, and looking for women to sleep with. He has an affair with a married woman who eventually dumps him for being an awful person.

Surprisingly, the novel is compelling, despite the repulsive narrator. He’s full of self-justification and impressed by his own psychological insights. The author does a superb job of creating a fictional character that I could not care less about, but in a world that drew me in.

With nothing to do and no one to do it with, Vadim is bored. When an acquaintance calls and invites him out to join a small group who are hoping to snort cocaine one evening, Vadim joins them. He is invited only because they are out of money and need whatever pittance he can provide. That is his first experience with cocaine and he is instantly hooked.

After the first night, he goes to the home of a wealthy school friend, who fortuitously is going away to visit a girlfriend. He tells Vadim he can housesit, and gives Vadim a wad of money to entertain himself. Vadim spends it all on cocaine.

It is an interesting, personalized narrative of cocaine’s effects, physical and psychological. Vadim eventually succumbs to his addiction.

It’s not a cheery story. It’s not one where I could feel any empathy for the characters. But it is powerfully written.