Matt Forney
Spread the Word!

Vodkaberg: Nine Years in Russia by English Teacher X

Years ago, I had a friend who worked at a bulk candy shop that had problems with employees swiping sweets when the manager’s back was turned. After theft reached an untenable level, the owner decided to change the policy to let employees have unlimited free samples. What happened? The employees would stuff themselves for a week or two, then when they got sick from overindulging, they wouldn’t steal so much as a Tootsie Roll afterwards. Losses dropped to a negligible amount.

There’s a reason why “may you have everything you wish for” was a Cherokee curse.

Life experience is inversely correlated with starry-eyed wonder. The freedom porn contingent of the ‘sphere (which I once was a part of) masturbates to the idea of FOREIGN TRAVEL! SEE THE WORLD! FUCK HOT BABES! The guys who’ve actually been there, on the other hand…

English Teacher X gets some flak for his overly cynical worldview, and I too was inclined to dismiss him somewhat on that score, before I read Vodkaberg. As his magnum opus, it’s a hilarious memoir of his experiences teaching English in Russia, but it’s also a bleak warning of the consequences of the expat lifestyle. Not the bathetic, phony “warnings” of the evils of casual sex and booze, but the sober, honest warning of burnout.

ETX got to the candy store and stuffed himself to the point of vomiting.

Vodkaberg picks up where X’s previous memoir, To Travel Hopelessly, left off; following his false start in the wasteland of Desolationgrad, X returns to Vodkaberg to work in earnest. From there, his life spirals into an endless series of one-night stands, drunken orgies and fistfights, broken up by the foibles of his degenerate co-workers and incompetent bosses:

I rolled her over and undressed her and attacked her big Slavic body with my mouth and got a condom out of my pocket and had suited up and was about to stick it in when she stood up screaming, noticing the sun was up, that she was late for work.

She got dressed and rushed off.

Oh well, I thought, and jacked off.

Unlike To Travel Hopelessly, which felt like a series of loosely related short stories, Vodkaberg is a tightly-focused memoir; it’s nearly three times as long and focuses solely on ETX’s life in Russia. The book’s chapters are subdivided by each year ETX was in Vodkaberg, bookended with statistics such as GDP and murder rate that show how Russia evolved and changed during his time there. In the year 2000, the country was dirt-poor and on the verge of collapse, with Russian girls still eagerly throwing themselves at foreigners; in 2009, when ETX left, Russia was wealthier, commercialized and an almost entirely different place.

More importantly, a decade is a long time to be fucking hordes of random girls and getting drunk.

ETX recently revealed that he intentionally wrote the book to emphasize the dark side of foreign travel, but really, the only truly dark aspect of Vodkaberg is the increasing burnout he feels as the book progresses. ETX burns through so many girls in the first half of the book that he gets to the point where he can’t even keep their names straight, while the second half details his attempts to cope with a world that is leaving him behind. His friends are getting married, the cute girls are drying up, the exchange rate has destroyed his salary, and he somehow lucks into a position as his school’s Director of Studies, which carries its own set of problems:

I thought of 15 years of shitty school administrations while I shot the crap out of the small town of Paradise, Arizona, and burned and electrocuted digital civilians, even blew up Gary Coleman, while my students took practice tests.

Part of Vodkaberg’s Bukowskian tone is probably a generational thing—English Teacher X is a GenXer talking to Millennials like myself—but he expertly conveys the ennui and sheer boredom that hedonism eventually devolves into. It’s one thing to hear that kind of thing from some cornfed Middle American who married his high school sweetheart; it’s another to hear it from a guy who was banging Marilyn Monroe lookalikes every week for the better part of a decade.

By the time he manages to flee to the Middle East, you almost feel a sense of relief.

Even with this bleakness, Vodkaberg still features ETX’s deeply cynical, side-splitting prose. Also unlike To Travel Hopelessly, the book has a consistent cast of characters that add depth–and dare I say tenderness—to the story. Whether it’s ETX’s cat Doofus, the middle-aged party animal Uncle Cool, or the soft harem that ETX keeps over the years—the Insane Bisexual, Pterodactyl Girl, Dark Angel, Almond Eyes—Vodkaberg becomes downright touching at points:

I was unconscious on the sofa, with my shorts around my knees, after returning at dawn from another apocalyptic drinking binge that ended with a failed attempt to masturbate, and the covers wrapped around my head. Since I didn’t hear the doorbell, he let himself in with his key, and found me just like that.

He was kind enough to close the bedroom door.

The closest thing to a problem I have with Vodkaberg is the Skype chat transcripts. Near the end of the book, ETX breaks up the action with transcripts of his IM chats with one of his girlfriends, Dark Angel. While there are some amusing gems in them, they screw with the flow of the book and caused my eyes to glaze over the screen. Also, given the length of the book, a hyperlinked table of contents in the Kindle edition would have been nice. Additionally, the book requires you to have some familiarity with To Travel Hopelessly in order to get the most out of it.

But these are very, very small problems. If you want a travel memoir that is radically different from everything else out there, that provides a nice antidote to all the SEE THE WORLD! FUCK HOT BABES! onanism, pick up Vodkaberg. It’s violently honest, funny and poignant; everything that a story is supposed to be.

Click here to buy Vodkaberg: Nine Years in Russia.

Read Next: To Travel Hopelessly: A TEFL Memoir by English Teacher X