'The Unpossessed City' by Jon Fasman

With its "Da Vinci Code"-esque plot, Jon Fasman's first novel, "The Geographer's Library," blended history, suspense, far-flung locations and a complicated treasure hunt into a smart literary thriller. His latest, "The Unpossessed City," is similarly literate and engaging, taking its odd title (whose meaning becomes clear) from Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities."

There are two central characters in this novel: a 32-year-old named Jim Vilatzer and the city of Moscow itself. The two converge in unlikely ways, until in the end Jim is possessed by the place that "wore its bone-deep, achingly humane brutality proudly."

The story follows Jim's transformational journey, both physically and personally. He's a lonely single man, dumped by his girlfriend, carrying serious gambling debt, living in suburban Maryland and working at the family restaurant. He spends his evenings watching TV, drinking beer and feeling "futureless." But by the end of the novel, he's the hero of his own life, having gone to Russia, dabbled in romance, broken up an international smuggling ring and been shot by the CIA.

One night after leaving the restaurant, Jim gets a call from the Serbian thugs to whom he owes money, wanting to collect their $24,000. They give him two weeks. "This is not a threat," his unsavory creditor says. "It is a question of cause and effect." He explains that he has no wish to cause Jim harm. "But the truth is we live in an unpleasant world," he adds, "and there is no other world but this."

Jim decides it's a good time to leave the country. Through an old friend named Vivek, he gets a job in Moscow for a nonprofit known as the Memory Foundation, which tracks down former political prisoners across Eastern Europe and records their testimonies for the foundation's archives. Thanks to his Russian-emigrant grandparents, Jim is proficient in Russian, which is one of the few requirements for the job. (The organization claims it employs foreigners, rather than natives, to bridge international relations.)

A grim city

Fasman portrays Moscow as a forbidding, melancholy locale, with "its pervasive grayness, its immensity and hardness," noting wryly that unlike, say, France or Italy, "nobody came here for pleasure; everyone -- even Russians -- would rather be elsewhere." Yet even as the author conveys Jim's sense of foreignness and alienation, he reveals the sense of belonging and stubborn attachment that gradually takes hold. Jim learns to love the grim city that offers no nurturing and "constantly challenged its denizens to survive unscathed." He quickly learns the rules for getting by under the radar and finds himself "hooked" on the hustling and daily unpredictability, not unlike "a three-dimensional poker game, calling on all the skills of bluffing, maneuvering, brag, evasion, watchfulness, bet hedging, tactful mollifying, and constant vigilance he had learned around the table."

A one-night stand with an actress named Kaisa leads to an interview with her Ukrainian grandfather, a gulag survivor, which proves a lucky break, leading him to other labor camp survivors. Yet it strikes Jim as odd that he's suddenly so productive in a matter of days; after all, he's been in Moscow for several months and hasn't found a single interviewee for the foundation. He's right to be suspicious of his apparent good fortune. Nor is it accidental that Mina Haddad, an American Embassy staffer in Moscow whom he grew up with, falls back into his life again.

Trouble ahead

Jim's work leads him on a dangerous path. He becomes a hunted man, a pawn in some inter-agency power struggles (the CIA, Russia's Interior Ministry) and sleazy deals. Despite his ostensible do-gooder aims, he's an unwitting player in a plot to kidnap Russian scientists, get them out of the country and offer their biochemical research secrets to the highest international bidders.

Although Fasman's novel contains elements of a conventional espionage thriller and familiar villain-and-good-guy fare, it transcends easy labels; this is also the moving story of a smart, humble man making peace with his roots, coming of age as an adult. Jim's harrowing experiences abroad ultimately help him shed the patterns he'd been stuck in, the staleness of his former life. He's no longer a lost soul. Moscow makes sure of that.

Adding to the novel's appeal is Fasman's highly descriptive and absorbing prose. Jim observes "a strong-jawed old woman who looked like she had willed herself into existence, like she had never been a child." And on the Metro, a train has "heavy steel doors that slammed shut so hard they seemed angry." It is through Jim's perspective that Moscow is revealed in all its complexity, both comic and tragic. Having been knocked around quite a lot, he marvels at "the way the city and its people nurtured their scars." In the end, Jim becomes one of them -- and above all, himself.

Ciuraru is a critic and the editor of several anthologies of poetry, including, most recently, "First Loves" and "Solitude."

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