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Welcome to Absurdistan, where oil and greed are king

By Gary Shteyngart
Random House, 333 pp., $24.95

Around 2002, there was an unexplained, mysterious profusion of books on post-Communist Eastern Europe from first-time American writers. Often giving the perspective of a clueless or naïve young American unexpectedly thrust into the moral and economic morass of the post-Soviet scrabble for existence, the mini-movement included Jonathan Safran Foer's overhyped ''Everything Is Illuminated" and Arthur Phillips's ''Prague." The undoubted standout of the bunch, though, was Gary Shteyngart's comic-absurdist ''The Russian Debutante's Handbook," the story of a hapless Russian immigrant who shucked off his sad-sack Manhattan life for a new existence as a mover and shaker in the era of the oligarch.

Shteyngart's unerring eye took in the recipients of overpriced American liberal-arts educations, scheming Russian immigrants, and Central European hustlers, gleefully cataloging their foibles, their crimes -- and their dreams.

Ah, the travails of the second novel! Unsatisfied with the accomplishments of his virgin effort, Shteyngart brings back the immigrants, the Americans adrift in Eastern Europe, the post-Soviet political drift, and adds self-aware Bellovian narration, sexual high jinks, and globalization farce to the mix. The results, at a sentence-by-sentence level, are delightful: pencils will be worn down to nubs by readers desperate not to lose track of a single one of Shteyngart's witty asides, or his ceaselessly inventive shtick. Studied at a less intensely microscopic level of magnification, ''Absurdistan" is, unfortunately, an unholy mess.

The nod to Bellow is no accident, nor is it alone here; ''Absurdistan" is crammed with references to canonical figures of the literary past ranging from Pushkin and Turgenev to Sinclair Lewis and that famed 19th-century Russian novel, ''War and the Other Thing." Shteyngart is never able to settle the disjunction between his own literary yearnings, and the musings of his protagonist Misha: ''Who cared about literature anyway? Petroleum and hip-hop were the topics of my generation."

''Absurdistan" is indeed a novel for the children of Halliburton and hip-hop, a sardonic tale of the revolution as brought to you by construction giant Kellogg, Brown and Root. Misha Vainberg (a.k.a. Snack Daddy) is a grossly corpulent layabout, son of Russia's 1,238th-richest man, recently deceased in a mysterious altercation. Misha, a self-described ''sophisticate and a melancholic," is less interested in continuing in his father's thieving ways, and more in getting back to New York City, and his beloved girlfriend Rouenna.

Misha had been summoned back to Russia by his father, a refusenik turned robber baron, a number of years prior, and then stranded in an unfamiliar country when his father proceeded to murder an Oklahoman businessman, barring Misha's re-entry to the United States. Scrambling to escape the gilded prison of high-society St. Petersburg, Misha hears about a back door to the civilized world: journey to the former Soviet republic of Absurdistan, where a corrupt Belgian diplomat sells EU passports for a hefty price. Misha arrives in Absurdistan, greeted by the latest symbol of one-world hegemony: a Microsoft Windows NT flag, flapping in the breeze. The Absurdi capital is a nightmare vision of American capitalism broken out like a contagious disease, ''a canyon of recently built glass skyscrapers bearing the corporate logos of ExxonMobil, BP, ChevronTexaco, Kellogg, Brown & Root, Bechtel, and Daewoo Heavy Industries" lining the city's main boulevard.

Misha's story is a picaresque for the era of globalization, its protagonist a 21st-century version of Turgenev's ''superfluous man" stumbling through history without learning much of anything, or changing his stripes. Misha finds himself at the center of a threatened Absurdi (and absurd) civil war between warring ethnic groups, one seemingly dictated less by sectarian strife than the desire to create a new economy built on the cost overruns of major American corporations' rebuilding efforts. Ever the innocent, Misha lets himself be hoodwinked into assisting one group of well-connected looters in stripping Absurdistan of all its resources, cajoled by the ever-ripe promise of a return to America.

The problem, for Shteyngart, is that all these pieces -- Latina girls from the Bronx, melancholy Russian billionaires, rapacious Texas oilmen, and the rest of the enormous cast of characters -- while clever on their own merits, add up to a tasteless stew, a gumbo composed of ingredients taken from ''The Russian Debutante's Handbook," the international section of the newspaper, and Shteyngart's own fervid memory, but lacking the base that would hold all its disparate flavors together. Take any one bite of ''Absurdistan," and be amazed by the richness of its flavor; consume it all, and be reminded of the indigestion sufferer from the old Alka-Seltzer commercials: ''I can't believe I ate the whole thing!"

Shteyngart is a prodigiously talented writer, but his muddy intentions for ''Absurdistan" far outstrip his often-superb writing. Is ''Absurdistan" a political satire? A family tragedy? The autobiography of a feckless ''playa"? A meditation on Jewish identity? ''Absurdistan" aims to be all these things, and more, and ends up being a great deal less than the sum of its parts. This is a tremendous shame, because there is so much to like about this novel: Shteyngart's self-deprecation about his literary achievements; Misha's homesick recitation of Zagat's restaurant reviews; the KBR-themed musical extravaganza put on by prostitutes at the Hyatt where Misha and the Halliburton bloodsuckers are waiting out the war. Shteyngart is an assiduous observer of the human condition, but lacks the deep-rooted misanthropy necessary to pull off this black-comic vision of a world gone mad under the fist of hegemonic American capitalism. That's probably a good thing for Shteyngart's family and friends, but something of a mixed blessing for his readers, left as they are with this ferociously overstuffed, half-baked satire.

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Globe. He is at work on his first book, a history of music videos.

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