About halfway through this riveting and absorbing work, it
struck me that Brent Ghelfi’s debut novel was the product of
cross-media influences. It’s as if he had written the book
while channeling Mickey Spillane, listening through headphones to
“Fun House” by The Stooges and sitting before an
enlarged reproduction of the central panel of THE LAST JUDGEMENT by
Hieronymus Bosch. VOLK'S GAME is as nightmarish, stunning
and brilliant as all of these.
The landscape of the novel is Moscow, where only the truly evil
possess the requisite tools for survival. Alexei Volkovoy is a
veteran of the Russian Army’s war in Chechnya, a man left
permanently scarred and deformed, both internally and externally.
Volk is much more than what he seems, a figure of power and
inherent contradictions; he is a major force in the Moscow black
market while functioning as an undercover agent for the Russian
military. Volk’s partner, economically and emotionally, is a
waiflike woman named Valya, who is almost childlike in appearance
yet is every bit as deadly as he is.
Volk, for all his power, serves two kingpins whose spheres of
influence coincide with his own. One is The General, a diminutive
but extremely dangerous figure in the Russian Army; the other is
Maxim, a Russian mafia kingpin whose tendrils of influence reach
into places that even Volk can’t imagine. Both men order Volk
to steal an improbable prize, a long-lost fabled painting of Da
Vinci’s titled Leda and the Swan. Volk is not the only
soul in quest of this work, and the duplicity, subterfuge and
death-dealing brutality that he encounters and dispenses during his
quest is made all the more mind-boggling by the true-to-life
backdrop of Moscow and Eastern Europe that Ghelfi infuses into
every page and paragraph of the novel.
One has no idea what is going to happen from moment to moment, and
Volk’s cold amorality lends an additional element of
uncertainty to the proceedings. This is made more so by the sliver
of morality and vulnerability he clings to so that his humanity,
already fully submerged, does not drown in the sea of brutality in
which he finds himself yet is totally necessary if he is going to
complete his mission intact, let alone successfully.
Ghelfi’s prose is like a dark drug that pulls you further
under its spell with each taste, so that by the end of the book,
the reader is exhausted and, though satiated, ready and frantic for
more. The author is reportedly working on a sequel to VOLK'S GAME;
it cannot come too soon.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011