[Reviewed by Bruce Roberts]
Michael Alyenikov’s Ivan and Misha is a beautiful book of short stories, seven all told, if the prologue and epilogue are counted, that are loosely centered around the title characters. What really ties them together though are the variety of passionate, intense characters, and the author’s amazing descriptive writing.
Ivan and Misha are two Russian fraternal twins who emigrate to America with lots of emotional baggage. Their beautiful mother died when they were very young, and neither they nor their father—a doctor of amazing charm and personality, and a penchant for big stories, and dreams he never pursues—have got over her. She reappears over and over through the stories, the stuff of dreams and sad memories.
As intensely as they remember their mother, so do Ivan and Misha love–in a very conflicted way—their father. He brought them to America for a better life, and he too appears and reappears. He is the charming big talker of their childhood, he is the old man deteriorating before their eyes, he is the vessel of ashes that they and his best friends reverently scatter from the Staten Island Ferry.
Both gay, early on in the AIDS epidemic, Ivan and Misha maintain the same conflicted yet loving intensity with their romantic partners. Misha, the more stable of the two, seems to have longer relationships, with only two partners mentioned. Ivan, more mercurial, bounces from partner to partner, aching with love for one only to have him slip away and go home without a word. All the relationships though seem transitory: Even Smith, Misha’s current partner, anguishes over staying or going, loving or not loving. He even tries a one-time stand, but halfway through realizes he loves Misha, dresses, and leaves.
Home, and the characters’ relationship with it, is a major concern. Not for Ivan and Misha so much. Their father is a non-judgmental soul, and they have few recriminations over the fact of being gay. But Smith, for example, tells Misha his parents are dead, and then goes through hell when his mother comes to visit. Taz, the lover who slips away from Ivan, wants to go home, despite the discomfort brought about by his lifestyle. Vinnie, in perhaps the most poignant of the stories, is dying of AIDS, and tormented constantly by thoughts of his father’s angry rejection of him when he first came out. His father actually comes to the hospital to see him, and kisses him on the mouth. He’s elated, til remembering his dad is a Mafioso: The kiss was the kiss of death.
Supporting these stories, and making this book shine throughout though is the writing. Open to any page at random and be treated to amazing descriptions that brilliantly underscore the ups and downs of the characters’ lives. On page 181, for example: “As he walked, Vinnie’s pale body and toothpick arms flopped about like the scarecrow from Oz. It was easy for me to imagine he had no bones, no joints, no muscles, just straw packed loosely into his baggy tan khakis and blue button-down shirt with its faded green Polo emblem. Light brown hair, straight as straw, fell over his eyes and ears. A smile stretched his face into the shape of a friendly Halloween pumpkin.” Bingo! A character is established with simple, yet eloquent description. Wonderful writing is a strength throughout.
In short, to explore the complexities of passionate, yet troubled, characters, while carried along by vivid, powerful writing, read Ivan and Misha, by Michael Alenyikov.