Vladimir Girshkin, the hapless hero of Gary Shteyngart’s first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (Riverhead, 2002), is born in Leningrad, moves with his parents to the United States as a child, and gets schooled in the folkways of the upper middle class in New York City and at a bucolic Ohio liberal arts college. By the time he’s 25 he’s an insecure, nervous, gloomy citizen of nowhere in particular. After falling victim to a completely improbable chain of events involving a socially demanding Fifth Avenue girlfriend, his best friend’s drug-dealing boss, and a batty fellow emigre who talks to his bedroom fan, he flees to post-Soviet eastern Europe and seizes the opportunity to reinvent himself–this time as a success. A careening, picaresque tale that reads like Mikhail Bulgakov meets Elmore Leonard, the novel goes on to track Vladimir’s perpetually hungover adventures in Prava, a Slavic city overrun with globe-trotting hipsters and opportunistic mafiya. Shteyngart’s an exuberant storyteller with a pitch-perfect ear for the ridiculous: the landscape of Prava is dominated by a gigantic statue of Stalin’s foot. But Vladimir’s desperate, improvised attempts to secure a place for himself in the world are more than just entertaining capers; his quest is also an allegory for eastern Europe’s own late-20th-century identity struggles. Shteyngart reads from The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (which came out in paperback last month) on Thursday, June 5, at 7:30 PM at Barbara’s Bookstore, 1100 Lake in Oak Park, 708-848-9140.