Escaping small-town life to immerse himself in the rapidly changing culture of 1998 Prague, Elliott falls in love with an English teacher with whom he explores their adopted city's wonders before historical events upend their idyllic existence.
BRIAN KIMBERLING grew up in southern Indiana and spent several years working in the Czech Republic, Mexico, and Turkey before settling in England. He received an MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University in 2010. Snapper, his first novel, was published in 2013.
It's 1998, and Indiana native Elliott joins the wave of Americans and other Westerners invading Prague to drink beer, fall in love, and teach English. He meets Amanda, an Englishwoman, and they move in together, beginning a prickly and ultimately doomed relationship. That's about it, and yet this bare sketch doesn't do justice to this slim novel, which offers a remarkable evocation of time and place, transcending what could, in lesser hands, have been a journal thinly disguised as memoir. Kimberling, whose debut novel, Snapper (2013), was a Booklist Editors' Choice selection, is an exacting wordsmith capable of elegantly simple sentences, and his narrator's observations are often dryly hilarious. (One character "touched things like books and forks like he was mad at them.") If several passages of dialogue are a touch arch and stagy, it's forgivable. Possibly some readers will wish for deeper emotions, richer character development, or a story arc with a more pronounced curve, but others will delight in the digressions, historical asides, and trenchant observations in this tour of a Prague that no longer exists. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
A young American expatriate struggles to find his footing in late-1990s Prague, which is having a hard time getting its own act together. Kimberling's (Snapper, 2013) second book is a comic novel, and the butt of the joke is usually Elliott, who arrives in the Czech capital from Indiana ("the South's middle finger") to teach English but is mostly disoriented by its absurd status following the Iron Curtain's collapse. Elliott's students allegedly want to claim some of capitalism's bounty but are mainly interested in learning English slang and mocking Americans' Cold War behavior. ("Either you had a low opinion of our bombs or a high opinion of your desks," one student tells Elliott in response to nuclear-bomb duck-and-cover drills.) Elliott is motivated to mature (somewhat) with the arrival of Amanda, a British ESL teacher he quickly falls for. Their romance runs at a low boil—after all, everything feels temporary in the city—but their travels through the new Czech Republic are entertaining, characterized by light irony or black comedy: A performance of Don Giovanni that "might as well have been mounted by toddlers"; the Church of Bones, where "beer cans, candy wrappers, and spent Marlboros" mix with "pelvises, coccyges, patellae, and skulls"; a cozy hotel where they spend the night that turns out to be a brothel. Kimberling has a rich store of peculiar tales to share, from a penguin smuggler to a mansion whose fireplace mantle "could have slept a family of five comfortably." The novel's episodic structure and laugh lines diminish the impact of Elliott's more sour reckonings toward the end, but Kimberling's deadpan wit and powers of observation amply compensate. A winning, offbeat yarn about life and love after communism. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
First it was my shoes. They went missing from outside my flat, where I left them slathered in mud after a lonely late-winter walk through the countryside northwest of Prague. I bought a new pair and forgot the old until they appeared two weeks later in the window of an art gallery, as part of an installation with an asking price of over six thousand dollars, converted from Czech crowns.
At least they had been cleaned. On the other hand holes had been drilled through the soles so that they could be strung like beads with other shoes and a number of books onto a vertical rope fastened to a repurposed manhole cover on the gallery’s hardwood floor and affixed at the top to the ceiling. The resulting column sagged lightly as it rose. My shoes had become part of an exotic and erudite tree. I couldn’t be sure they were mine without closer examination, so I went inside.
In small print under the price tag I saw that the artist responsible for Rosary went only by the initials D.K. My shoes were of extravagant American provenance compared to the evidently Central and Eastern European shoes; moreover they were size 14, sensibly deployed near the bottom of the tree, and sandwiched between something in German and a military history book in English. All of the shoes and books looked used. All the major European languages were represented. The shoes were black and brown; the books red and blue and purple and orange.
At a desk in a corner sat a compact individual of indeterminate gender with shoulder-length sandy hair and a pale face, delicate hands emerging from a man’s shirtsleeves splayed on the desk. I hoped they spoke English.
“Excuse me,” I said. “You have my shoes in your window.”
“I’m sure you’re mistaken,” they said, distinctly more tenor than alto.
“I’m sure I’m not,” I said.
“I’m sure the artist in question steals only the shoes of other artists.”
“My shoes went missing two weeks ago and now they’re in your window. I can prove that they are mine.”
“How do you propose to do that?”
“My name is inside them.”
“And why is your name inside them?”
“My mother put it there.”
He raised a lone eyebrow. I began to feel like a suspect accused of an unspecified crime.
“I see. And how old are you?”
“This mother, she travels with you?”
“Shame. She could perhaps teach you not to insult people in European art galleries.”
“It says Elliott Black on the inside tongue of each shoe. Little label she stitched in. Just have a look.”
“If you wish to purchase the item you can do whatever you like with it.” He seemed pained behind the comic façade, as if he had never met an American with such limited funding that a pair of shoes could be a matter of legitimate concern.
“I don’t want the shoes back now. They’re ruined. But I would like to know how they got here.”
“You say your shoes were stolen?”
“I am sorry to hear it. Crime in our country is not like crime in your country.”
“What does that even mean?” I said. I could also see that in his country the customer was not always right.
“I can’t help you, Mr. Black. You are just visiting?”
“I teach English.”
“You are a lucky man. How long have you been here?”
“About a month.”
“Then you have noticed that Prague is full of statues. Where there are statues there are artists. You can’t be too careful with your shoes.”
“That isn’t even a statue,” I said.
“Would you call it a monument?”
“I’ll bet those are all library books, too. I bet they have labels.”
“Sadly, investigating your hypothesis would entail dismantling the object.”
“How can I track down this D.K. and ask how come he stole my shoes?”
“Are artists tracked down in America? How very enlightening. Perhaps you could lure him into a trap with more shoes.”
“Is there someone else I can talk to?”
He made an elaborate show of looking around. In profile he had long sideburns and an improbably long, sharp nose. He reminded me of a meerkat sentry tasting the wind.
“I see no one.”
I looked around, too. The gallery also contained a working pram made from papier-mâché pornography, a large wax bust of Lenin laughing, and several glass articles of no obvious appeal or utility. The remaining space was devoted to paintings.
“If you would like to complain to the manager,” he said, “I am listening.”
“You have to admit that I have a mystery here,” I said.
“Are your shoes comfortable?”
“The ones you are wearing.”
“The square toe suits you,” he said. “I generally think of Americans as sneaker people.”
“Oh, come on,” I said. “Cowboy boots.”
“Touché,” he said.
“Do you have a name?” I said.
“Certainly, Mr. Black. I am Mr. Cimarron.”
“Well, Mr. Cimarron, if you would tell Mr. D.K. that Mr. Black is annoyed I’d appreciate it.”
“I do not actually know that D.K. is a man,” he said. “My assistant handles weekend deliveries. Perhaps I infer it from the phallic nature of the work. Would you call it furniture?”
“I would call it my shoes.”
“The way it droops as it rises does suggest some performance anxiety, don’t you think?”
I was compelled to look at it again. Every shoe was polished and every book spine uncracked; I could almost imagine somebody wanting it at the end of the sofa in a living room somewhere. Around it instead were gleaming floorboards, immaculate walls, a spotless window; outside young men and women in sportswear laughing, cars honking, history erased and replaced by this absurd artifact with no immediate meaning that I could detect.
“I prefer to think of it as a tree,” I said.
“A tree with performance anxiety. Your ideas are fascinating. Would you call it an entity?”
“I’d be dazzled if anyone created a thing that isn’t an entity.”
“Yet we can create entities that are not things.”
“Or can we? You’re the English teacher.”
“Fine,” I said. “The rain is a thing that falls on the plain, mainly, also a thing, of Spain, which is more of an entity.”
“You illustrate my point beautifully. Poor Spain can’t fall on anything.”
“That doesn’t strike me as a point. And the plain is going to have trouble with that, too.”
“Is a point an entity or a thing?”
We glared at each other.
“I don’t suppose you want to tell me the point of the thing,” I said, pointing at it.
“To make money, of course.”