Chapter 1: An Overture to the Commencement of a Very Rigid Journey
Alex is a young Ukrainian man and the narrator through much of the novel. He lives in Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea in Ukraine. He is the same age as Jonathan. Alex becomes Jonathan's unofficial guide on his trip to Ukraine. In amusingly incorrect English, Alex introduces us to his own life. He brags about his promiscuity and reckless spending habits. He has never been to the United States, but is enamored of American music and luxuries. Alex is proud to the point of being overconfident, even though he describes his life as ordinary.
Alex introduces us to his family: Mother, Father, his younger brother, Little Igor, and Grandfather. Grandfather lives with the family part of the time. Mother is a humble woman who works at a cafÃ©. She is a typical Eastern European mother. She scolds Alex constantly and tells him that doing things you hate for other people is what makes a family. Father works for Heritage Touring, a travel agency that specializes in helping American Jews trace their roots in small towns in Poland and Ukraine. Alex calls Little Igor "the Clumsy One," because he is always bruised. Alex cares about Little Igor and tries to be a good brother to him.
Grandfather was born in Odessa in 1918 and has never left Ukraine. Since Grandmother's death from brain cancer two years ago, Grandfather has been depressed. He often yells at Alex and Little Igor. He also claims that he has gone blind, so he keeps a seeing-eye dog (who is not actually trained) named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior. Alex refers to the dog as a "seeing-eye bitch." He also claims that she is deranged.
Translators and guides are in short supply in early July, when Jonathan is slated to arrive in Ukraine. This is because Ukraine is celebrating the first anniversary of its new constitution. Many people are on vacation to celebrate. Since Alex excelled in his English course at university, Father assigns him to work with Jonathan. Father then makes Grandfather the driver for the trip, against his will and despite his supposed blindness. They make plans to pick up Jonathan in Lvov, a major Ukrainian city, and drive him around the nearby area called Lutsk. We find out that Jonathan is seeking his grandfather's hometown, called Trachimbrod. He also wants to find a woman named Augustine, who may have saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. Grandfather does not want to be the driver, but Father convinces him, and it is settled.
Although the book is about Jonathan's trip, it opens with Alex's voice. As we meet Alex himself, we wonder why Alex's family is important at all. Alex takes many liberties with the first chapter, partially because he loves to brag, and partially because he is so excited to write for Jonathan. He spends many pages exaggerating about himself, especially with regard to his appearance, his promiscuity, and his sexual prowess. He shows off his knowledge of American pop culture and luxuries, trying to make himself appear as "cool" as possible. Even though Alex and Jonathan have already met, it is clear that Alex is still self-conscious around him. After all, he is writing for an American his own age, and he clearly feels competitive. He wants to prove that he is more than just a tour guide.
The novel's whimsical, ironic humor is present from this first chapter. This humor relies on the humor of cultural misunderstanding as well as tragicomedy, beginning with Grandfather. He is a truly sad character, mourning his wife and being generally belligerent. But we laught at a supposed blind man's being made the driver for Jonathan's trip. The dog's name, playing on the duplication of "Junior," compounds the humor.