In the hands of another author, this would be an invitation to recklessness. Novels set in Soviet Russia have lately had a tendency to ballast their black comedy with zany narrative high jinks or social commentary pitched toward the present. Witness last year's "House of Meetings" by Martin Amis, which featured another Lev and confused the horrors of the Gulag with the comparably picayune problems of the bedroom. Benioff intends something more modest but ultimately more moving. "City of Thieves" is a coming-of-age story brilliantly amplified by its war-torn backdrop.
When we first meet Lev, he has nothing but strikes against him. The son of a minor Jewish poet, he's already considered an enemy of the people before he's sent to Leningrad's prison for looting a dead German paratrooper. There he shares a cell with Kolya, a chronically constipated local Lothario, who claims to have been unjustly charged with desertion after he left his regiment to defend his dissertation on an obscure Russian novelist. Instead of immediate execution, a Red Army colonel offers the cellmates a chance at redemption: They must find a dozen eggs somewhere in the city to use for his daughter's wedding cake. It's an order that makes the missions in "The Dirty Dozen" and "Saving Private Ryan" seem eminently reasonable, but this, after all, is Mother Russia.
Kolya and Lev face a series of hair-raising terrors as they traipse around the freezing city. "Just because there's bad news doesn't mean there's good news, too," Kolya chides, and that might as well be their motto. The two fast friends encounter urban cannibals, snacks made from bookbinding glue, dogs strapped with dynamite to blow up Panzer tanks and, most hauntingly, a makeshift brothel on the outskirts of the city, where one of the girls has had her feet sawed off by a sadistic Nazi commander. "Everything about the war was ridiculous," Lev thinks: "the Germans' barbarity, the Party's propaganda, the crossfire of incendiary bullets that lit the nighttime sky."
Stealing the show in the novel, Kolya keeps Lev distracted with his hilarious mini-lectures on history ("All the Frenchmen with [guts] died on the way home from Moscow in 1812"); literature ("Oblomov is a morality lesson . . . a little trifle you make your kids read so they don't grow up lazy"); and sex ("The secret to winning a woman is calculated neglect") along with periodic updates on the state of his bowels. If the conversations seem to stray far from what's going on around them, that's the point: "You couldn't let too much truth seep into your conversation, you couldn't admit with your mouth what your eyes had seen."
The plot jolts into high gear when Lev and Kolya agree to avenge the Russian girl and ambush the German officers in the brothel. The same night they unexpectedly fall in with a motley crew of Russian partisans, who have been tracking Cmdr. Abendroth, the head of the Nazi death squads. Soon the nervously virginal Lev is receiving tactical advice from Kolya on the crush he's developed for Nina, a tomboy sharpshooter in their ranks. Everything for Lev -- his budding romance, his friendship, his eggs -- will boil down to a chess game between him and Abendroth, whom Benioff depicts as the dual apotheosis of Nazi sophistication and inhumanity.