by Michael Alenyikov
Published by Triquarterly / Northwestern University Press
Published October 30, 2010
199 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
June 19, 2012.
Michael Aleynikov’s Ivan and Misha provides a set of linked stories. The title characters are fraternal twins born in Kiev, raised and taken to America by a father, Louie, né Lyov, who was a physician there who became a doorman in Manhattan. The older, darker-skinned, more innocent twin, Ivan is a taxi driver who survives being shot and periodically goes off the deep end, landing in Bellevue. Physicians and Misha proscribe the bipolar Ivan falling in love. Though Ivan’s love for his father and brother seem boundless, he has still more and cannot comply with that medical directive.
Ivan was infected with HIV by Kevin and is now living with a Michigander who calls himself Smith and claims to be from the Upper Peninsula rather than from more sophisticated Ann Arbor. In that Smith is unsure about most everything except his love for his sister, it is not surprising that he is uncertain about being able to sustain a relationship with and HIV+ man, and thinks about leaving Ivan. In part, Kevin is frustrated that Ivan comes first for Misha, though Kevin does not feel entitled to be jealous of the bond with a twin. No entitled, but still feeling the jealousy and thinking about running away about as far as it is possible to run (Antarctica! He has a ticket…).
Misha and Ivan are both puzzled at the chilliness with which WASP men whom they love have for parents. Misha and Ivan don’t remember having ever had more than one parent and remain close, not least in living in the same place with their larger-than-life father.
Aleynikov says the book is not autobiographical, though he did work as a taxi driver (in Boston rather than Manhattan, as he was phasing out from being a clinical psychologist), except somewhat in being the witness character to the chronologically earliest (but placed far back within the book) story in which Kevin visits Vinnie, the man who may have infected him with HIV, as Vinnie is dying in [St. Luke’s] Roosevelt hospital. I read the story as going back to trace the virus vector that reached Misha, though the story (which was published in the James White Review) was written first, before Aleynikov had conjured the character of Misha with Kevin as an ex.
Affectingly and beautifully written as “Who Did What to Whom?” is, when I was reading the book, I thought it too remote from the characters I cared about and felt like I knew (Ivan, Misha, Smith), though I have to admit that I remember that story very clearly, despite having read (and seen and lived) many similar AIDS death vigil stories.
I still feel that the quasi-novel (it is a sort of novel with multiple protagonists and not in chronological order) was going to reach back in time, it should have been to filling in backstories of the childhood or adolescence of Misha and Ivan, whether in Kiev or in Manhattan. I’m pretty sure that other readers have/will want more of them, and AIDS death stories have been shown to lack market demand. In a Guywrite appearance, Aleynikov said that the book’s editor suggested omitting “Who Did What to Whom?” but that Aleynikov chose to cut out two other stories instead (I don’t know what these were or whether Misha and Ivan were in them.)
I don’t think there is any graphic sex in the book, though I am well aware that movies that show gay characters automatically (seem to) get R ratings from the MPAA protectors from sexual realities… The characters (certainly including Louie!) are sexual beings, for sure.
Aleynikov is a pen name, but the author clearly is of Russian immigrant descent, so as a WASP who was a Michigander (for five years, plus two more in Ontario) I might note that I find Smith and the self-critical WASP would-be writer (and fellow cab driver) Taz (from California, where I have lived more than half my life, though it was a visit to Tasmania—which is more WASP than California— that led to his choice of moniker) as credible as the Russian father and sons. “In Misha’s world one was loyal to the death for family, even if they drove you crazy, even if they were crazy.” We WASPs more easily detach ourselves, physically and emotionally, and I have experience of such detachment shocking those from more familial cultures (Latino ones, in Confucian ones the fathers are often remote authority figures and only the emotional bond to the mother is expected to be intense).
Because Ivan is my favorite character (albeit one I am sure I would find difficult if I met him, since he does not get irony or sarcasm), “Whirling Dervishes” is my favorite story, but I loved and admired, was frequently touched by the whole very rich quasi-novel which also has some LOL observations (and one that will shock some readers, I’m sure). It is the most compelling book I’ve read since My Brother and His Brother (in which the narrator’s brother was dead before the narrator was born, btw, lest the title seem to suggest it was more like Ivan and Misha than it was).
On the same program Jim Provenzano said that growing up in Ashland, Ohio on career day he said he wanted to be a novelist, and the teacher said “We don’t have any of those here.” She, however, hooked him up with a newspaperman, and after getting a degree in dance, and being a dancer in Pittsburgh and NYC, he moved from freelancing (for the Sentinel) to working for the Bay Area Reporter (1992-). He self-published Pins (1999), which has sold 6000 copies. He started Monkey Suits (2003) before that and just one a Lambda gay romance award for Every Time I Think of You (published in December 2011; he advised against releasing books in December).
Lewis DeSimone, whose novel The Heart’s History came out last month (though first envisioned during the 1980s before Massachusetts men could marry each other) said he wanted to live in a post-homopobic world but not to be post-gay. The cut-the-bullshit (especially about romance/coupledom) character in the novel, Harlan, has proved to be its most popular, and he read two scenes. It seems the book centers more on a regal Edward dying of AIDS (without a death scene, but with a memorial conclave within the book). “Which is the greater goal for the gay community’s coming of age—to be accepted into the fabric of the straight world, or to add a new color to it?” DeSimone asks.
He also says that the relationship with someone who proved to be crazy (clinically depressed) in his first book, Chemistry, did not last as long as writing about it took. It took place in Boston, though the novel moves it to San Francisco. Both DeSimone and Aleynikov were in a Napa workshop run by Michael Cunningham, though I’m not sure which Aleynikov story began there.
BTW, in regard to the trying to get published frustrations, Aleynikov said that outright rejection was easier to take than then “almost” acceptances. And DeSimone makes his living in marketing. I don’t know how Aleynikov now does, having a range of work experiences.
First published by epinions, 19 June 2012
©2012, 2016, Stephen O. Murray