‘The Red Corner’ wins novel award

My novel manuscript, The Red Corner, recently won the Hackney Literary Award, a $5,000 prize for an unpublished novel. Below is an excerpt that ran in The Great Lakes ReviewIt is set at a party at the lakeside mansion of a Russian mobster in suburban Chicago. (Also check out the opening chapters, an earlier version of which originally ran in Narrative magazine, here.)


By Russell Working


The day of Garik’s party, a warm front blew in, and Darya Vanderkloot’s sore throat disappeared. It was eighty-six along Lake Michigan, and most of staff of the Cherry Orchard Russian Deli & Productery worked in their shirt sleeves as they loaded the van with cases of wine, plastic bins of food, and coolers of salad, lox, deviled eggs, frozen pelmeni, cakes, sirloin. Like the others, Darya, wore her catering uniform: a white shirt, black bow tie, and baggy pants with a hound’s-tooth check pattern, but she kept an eye on Alexei. He cut a debonair figure, like a young celebrity chief, until he shrugged on a hoodie, despite the warm weather, and shouldered his backpack, transforming himself into a freebooter on a boarding raid. Everyone worked briskly, cheerful about the change in routine, but Alexei’s scowl kept the others at bay. He brushed right past Darya without hearing her hello.

“Hey, you!” she said.

He looked perplexed. “Oh, hi.”

“You all right?”

“Never better,” he said, then went back inside for another load.

They were catering a party for a new customer named Igor “Garik” Voskresensky, who had just shown up in the Cherry Orchard a few weeks ago. Eleven years ago, in Vladivostok, he had assassinated Alexei’s father, who was running for governor. Alexei had witnessed the murder as a child, and he immediately recognized the hit man. But now he was eighteen, and the disguise of adulthood held, while Garik had no idea who he was. Alexei and Darya had not been close, but he had chosen to confide in her for some reason. The boy was a loner, an amateur boxer and astronomy buff, and maybe he had no one else to talk to. Continue reading

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An Open Letter to the Lab Mouse, Presumably Deceased, Upon Whose Back Scientists First Grew a Human-Looking Ear

earmouseNote: Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency has a section called “Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond.” Many of these are amusing, some less so. But after I read a few, the Muse descended, and, aflame with divine inspiration—the gods whispering in my hearing aids—I wrote my own epistle. In a puzzling lapse in taste, McSweeney’s rejected my letter. Bums! They’re wrong!

Or are they? Since “Open Letters to [Etc.]” is a feature that is unique to McSweeney’s, as far as I know, I can’t shop this around at other publications and prove that editor C— (not his real name) made a grave mistake. Instead, I offer my multitudinous readership a chance to vote on whether, inexplicably, this famous publication blew it. (They did.) Here’s the letter to the earmouse:

Dear Little Friend:

True, we have never met, but I hope you’ll forgive the familiarity, up there in your nest of shavings in that great cage in the sky, where you certainly now reside, the average lifespan of a mouse being only two years.  But as you nibble your eternal supply of unsalted sunflower seeds, I feel as if I could lean over and confide in that human-looking ear on your back.  You would listen.  You’d care.  I say this not merely because you won worldwide sympathy as a hairless rodent who, without signing any consent forms, was caused by scientists to grow a wrestling coach’s cauliflower ear on its back.  The thing is (and I will admit this is selfish), I keep hoping someone will grow a new set of ears for me on some mouse’s back, and I can get rid of my hearing aids. Continue reading


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The War of the Werewolves and the Minotaurs


Illegal dogfights. Mafia assassinations. And a goodfella who wanted to kill me because I wore a blue shirt to a mob boss’s funeral. My essay, “The War of the Werewolves and the Minotaurs,” offers a glimpse of the mafia in Vladivostok, Russia, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when I lived there. The piece appears in the latest edition of Spolia, edited by Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin. Here’s the opening. 


Kill the Clown

Every day at the Vladivostok News, an English-language newspaper I used to edit in the Russian Far East, we would pull up our chairs and discuss the headlines in the local dailies. Sometimes they merited a follow; sometimes—as when papers defended the governor against the “provocations” and “bullying” of foreign reporters such as me—they did not.

One week early in July 1997, the big news was the investigation of the assassination of a reputed mob boss named Anatoly Kovalyov outside the Royal Park Casino, which was close to our home and boasted a Swedish chef named Micke, whose bacon and scallop salad was particularly recommended. At 1:15 a.m. one Monday, a brawl broke out amid the slots and roulette wheels. Men threw roundhouses and crashed into tables as faun-legged girls in miniskirts shrieked and danced out of the way. Possibly the fight was staged; at any rate it drew the entire security cohort into the room, the media later reported. Guards in blue camouflage and bulletproof vests stormed in to break it up, even the guys who scanned you for weapons on your way in, leaving nobody up front. Kovalyov and his entourage reckoned it was time to clear out. Continue reading

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Life in These United States

I (at coffehouse bakery that’s not Starbucks): They making you guys talk about race here, too?


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Uncut pages, background music, crying babies on trains, robust circus ladies hanging by their teeth: Nabokov’s hates

From a newly surfaced Israeli interview with Nabokov. Things he hates, whom he sides with in the Middle East, and his thoughts on exile. “America, my adopted country, is the closest thing to my idea of home”: He wrote this from Switzerland.

What is boring for you? What is most amusing for you?

Let me tell you instead what I hate: Background music, canned music, piped-in music, portable music, next-room music, inflicted music of any kind.

Primitivism in art: “abstract” daubs, symbolic bleak little plays, junk sculpture, “avant-garde” verse, and other crude banalities. Clubs, unions, fraternities, etc. (In the course of these last twenty-five years I must have turned down some twenty offers of glamorous membership).

Oppression. I am ready to accept any regime – Socialistic, Royalistic, Janitorial, – provided mind and body are free.

The touch of satin.

Circuses–especially animal acts and robust ladies hanging by their teeth in the air. The four doctors: Dr. Freud. Dr. Schweitzer, Dr. Zhivago and Dr. Castro.

Causes, demonstrations, processions. “Concise” dictionaries, “abridged” manuals. Journalistic clichés: “The moment of truth,” for example, or the execrable “dialogue.”

Stupid, inimical things: the spectacles case that gets lost; the clothes-hanger that topples down in the closet; the wrong pocket. Folding an umbrella, not finding its secret button. Uncut pages, knots in shoelaces. The prickly aura of one’s face after skipping one’s morning shave. Babies in trains. The act of falling asleep.

What do you think of the situation in the Middle East?

There exist several subjects in which I have expert knowledge: certain groups of butterflies, Pushkin, the art of chess problems, translation from and into English, Russian and French, word-play, novels, insomnia, and immortality. But among those subjects, politics is not represented. I can only reply to your question about the Near East in a very amateur way: I fervently favor total friendship between America and Israel and am emotionally inclined to take Israel’s side in all political matters.

Read it all here.

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Road of Bones: A visit to a Gulag city with Harry Wu

TriQuarterly has just published my essay/memoir on visiting the Gulag region of Kolyma with Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu, along with a ex-cop who claimed he won a wife in a card game. Here’s an excerpt:

1. The Mask of Sorrow

From a hilltop above the North Pacific seaport of Magadan, Russia, The Mask of Sorrow—a 50-foot monument that resembles an Easter Island head—overlooks the city. You keep glimpsing this concrete memorial from afar as you move about town, passing Stalin-era buildings downtown, skirting abandoned construction sites, puzzling over the sight of two fighter jets perched on a huge steel structure over a creek, as if they had snagged themselves while flying under the radar. The giant face, by the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, is pocked on one side with lesions that resemble the “lion’s mask” of leprosy described by the Gulag author Varlam Shalamov. One of its eyes discharges blobby tears.

The monument honors the victims of the Kolyma Gulag camps, once centered here in Magadan. In Stalinist times, these people—millions, perhaps—were worked to death felling timber or frozen in punishment cells or simply called from their barracks and shot to meet the day’s quota of executions. Certain citizens of Magadan are proud of the monument: camp survivors, their children, people of conscience who preserved the memory of Soviet crimes. Few cities in Russia have ever created such a prominent memorial, and the organizers in Magadan had to overcome a hostile rear guard that asserted the past was a long time ago and never really happened anyway. Now, the organizers longed for the approval of a guest they were showing around town: a Chinese American human rights activist named Harry Wu.

But to his hosts’ surprise, Wu seemed dissatisfied. Wearing an elastic scowl and glasses that magnified his mournful eyes, he marched around with his hands clasped behind his back, in the manner of Chinese prisoners. One of his hosts, Miron Etlis, was a psychiatrist and Gulag survivor with a beard that had slipped down his throat like a muffler. He kept grabbing Wu by the elbow, as if to drag a word of praise out of him. But Wu told his hosts to pack up the monument and truck it down to the city center.

“You have to remove all the Lenin and Stalin statues and put up Gulag monuments,” Wu said, jabbing a finger at his hosts. “That’s the only way to keep it from coming back.”

Read more here.

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The Sony Hack (cont.): Dirty Russkies?

IdiotsMy Russian wife, who thinks her countrymen were behind the Sony hack, finds support in The New York Times. (Alternate theory: It’s an inside job by a disgruntled ex-employee.)

On Wednesday, one alternate theory emerged. Computational linguists at Taia Global, a cybersecurity consultancy, performed a linguistic analysis of the hackers’ online messages — which were all written in imperfect English — and concluded that based on translation errors and phrasing, the attackers are more likely to be Russian speakers than Korean speakers.

Such linguistic analysis is hardly foolproof. But the practice, known as stylometry, has been used to contest the authors behind some of history’s most disputed documents, from Shakespearean sonnets to the Federalist Papers.

Shlomo Argamon, Taia’s Global’s chief scientist, said in an interview Wednesday that the research was not a quantitative, computer analysis. Mr. Argamon said he and a team of linguists had mined hackers’ messages for phrases that are not normally used in English and found 20 in total. Korean, Mandarin, Russian and German linguists then conducted literal word-for-word translations of those phrases in each language. Of the 20, 15 appeared to be literal Russian translations, nine were Korean and none matched Mandarin or German phrases.

Mr. Argamon’s team performed a second test of cases where hackers used incorrect English grammar. They asked the same linguists if five of those constructions were valid in their own language. Three of the constructions were consistent with Russian; only one was a valid Korean construction.

“Korea is still a possibility, but it’s much less likely than Russia,” Mr. Argamon said of his findings.

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