East of the West

by Miroslav Penkov

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

240 pp/$24

The journey from casual reader to full-blown literary nerd is fraught with the particular peril I will call “countries unread.” You’re at a party, the drinks are flowing and the conversation turns to books. “Dostoevsky rules!” Someone says. “He’s the greatest of the Russians.” You agree, despite never having read Dostoevsky (okay, you did read the first hundred or so pages of Crime and Punishment, but that doesn’t count). Come to think of it, you haven’t read any Russian literature! What do you do when the conversation turns to you?

“While we’re on the subject of Eastern Europe,” you begin, “have you read anything from Bulgaria?” You’ll probably get a “no,” followed by the subsequent task of informing the partygoer about the extraordinarily diverse and endlessly entertaining short stories contained in Miroslav Penkov’s debut collection, East of the West. Though it carries the subtitle A Country in Stories, Penkov does not strictly write “Bulgarian” literature. These tales deal with the American experience almost as much as they deal with the Bulgarian.

Take “Buying Lenin” — the story that won the 2007 Eudora Welty Prize and introduced Penkov as an exciting new talent — a Bulgarian émigré is studying in the United States, despite the staunch objections from his communist grandfather back home who quotes Lenin ad nauseum. Penkov navigates the grandson’s growing dissatisfaction for the United States with effortless humor that turns into a tender pathos as the protagonist grows closer to his cooky yet endearing grandfather. The grandson’s purchase of the supposedly frozen corpse of Lenin from eBay and its eventual shipment to the old man is mysteriously satisfying and sweet.

Author Miroslav Penkov

Threads of mystery reoccur, cross-stitched into the realistic fabric of just about all of these stories. Rado and Gogo, the titular protagonists of “Cross Thieves,” steal everday items, imbue them with fake historical significance, and then sell them to unsuspecting dupes. Rado calls his partner and himself “appropriators,” but more importantly, “mythmakers.” Mythmakers indeed: where this story goes after a perfectly ironic turn is the stuff of tall tales. But Penkov does not beat the reader over the head with the fable-stick, and rather retains his signature humor right up to the last line.

Perhaps the greatest marvel of East of the West is its vast spectrum of characters, varied in both age and gender. “Buying Lenin” and “Cross Thieves” evince Penkov’s talent for creating distinct young adults, but “A Picture with Yuki” and the eponymous “East of the West” give voice to thirty-somethings with equal believability. “Makedonija,” the opener, is told from the perspective of an elderly man who feels comic jealousy over his dying wife’s old flame. And Mary, the acerbic thief of “The Letter,” shows that Penkov can create a convincing female lead. That a 28 year-old Bulgarian can create such diverse characters in a skillful English, an English he only began to develop in high school, is a feat in itself.

“Devshirmeh” concludes the collection, and it is certainly the most challenging story on display. All of the elements that make Penkov Penkov coalesce: Micahel/Mihail, the Bulgarian in America struggling for both his own identity and that of his estranged daughter; Joe Martin, the beer-swilling, wise-cracking best friend who punctuates the narrative with simple truths; and the devshirmeh, the Bulgarian practice of blood tribute, told as a story-within-a-story. Comedy gradually dissipates until the story is “resolved” in a mire of uncertainty. At nearly double the length of every other story, “Devshirmeh” hints (hopefully!) that Penkov has a novel in him.

For now, we must make do with the short stories, and at 28, it’s not a stretch to say that Penkov has mastered the form, or come very close. His work resists categorization in all the right ways. He does not write comedy, or even tragicomedy, though many of the plot twists are shocking when read out of context. And he is not a regional writer per se, though the reader will learn a ton about Bulgaria in the process (for more info, check out Penkov’s blog).

But because East of the West is his first release, the labels will abound – “dark Bulgarian comedy,” this may very well be called. But if the content is any indication, Penkov will be his own label, as he will likely be writing for a long time to come. At your next literary cocktail party, perhaps five years in the future, you may simply be able to ask, “have you read any Penkov?”

–Stephen Spencer lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He has an M.A. in English Literature from Brooklyn College and writes creatively in his spare time.

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