Book Report — We Had a Little Real Estate Problem; Absurdistan

We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans and Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff

Nonfiction, 2021

Marginalization was a federal policy in both Canada and the United States for 150 years. The purpose has always been to get people out of the way so that industry could exploit natural resources and claim them as their own. The Declaration of Independence refers to “Indian savages” three times, while the document itself failed to apply to Native peoples. (Charlie Hill joked, “You’d think they would at least change it to ‘Native American savages.'”)

Kliph Nesteroff has staked out some nice territory for himself as a relatively unconventional historian of comedy. One of his specialties online is responding to the cancel culture outrage du jour with a string of screenshots of news stories culled from earlier decades that feature similarly self-pitying wails about supposedly untenable audience sensitivity. Like any skilled miner of the past, he manages to illuminate the present with a hearty dose of accumulated context.

We Had a Little Real Estate Problem uses the history of Native Americans working in comedy to gently but clearly provide parallel commentary on the perpetual injustices heaped upon people who were, after all, on this land before anyone else. Explicitly acknowledging that he’s not a member of the group he’s writing about, Nesteroff gives over huge swaths of his pages to long quotes that allow the Indigenous Americans to tell their own stories. Although Nesteroff covers a wide range of comics, both long gone and more modern, it also stands as a stealth biography of Charlie Hill, the Oneida performer whose routine provides the book’s title. In every respect, the book is affecting and illuminating.

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Fiction, 2006

I’ll tell you something else. When I was four or five years old, my parents used to rent this wooden hut for the summer. The hut was about a hundred kilometers north of Leningrad, close to the Finnish frontier. It was perched on a yellowish hill featuring all kinds of decrepit vegetation and this rotting hornbeam tree that would take up human form and chase after me in dreams. At the bottom of the hill was a brook that made this characteristic pshhhh sound that I think all brooks make (they don’t really burble, per se), and if you followed the brook around innumerable bends and cataracts, you’d emerge into this gray socialist village—which wasn’t really a village anymore but some kind of depot for trucks bearing benzene or kerosene or another highly flammable gas.

The second novel by Gary Shteyngart satirizes the moral slipperiness of his homeland. Born in Leningrad but largely raised in New York City, Shteyngart brings an undeniable verve to telling the story of Misha Vainberg, the obese scion of a wealthy, dubious family. Especially in its depiction of the roving social disaster that is the former Soviet republic Absurdsvanϊ, which is mess even before Civil War breaks out, Absurdistan calls to mind the postmodern tomfoolery of Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon. Shteyngart lacks the deftness of those forebears, though. Although amusing at points, Absurdistan too often relies on raunchy mockery for my taste.

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