By SUE SUCHYTA
Dearborn native Robert Fox recently released “Love and Vodka,” a memoir of his surreal adventure in Ukraine pursuing love after meeting an exchange student in Hollywood, which initiated an email courtship.
The book, which he first wrote as a screen play, follows then 25-year-old Fox to Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, in August 2001. The city, a former Soviet Cold War weapons manufacturing center, was closed to foreigners until 1991, when Ukraine gained its independence.
In a land where he doesn’t know the language or customs, where showers are cold and the vodka is consumed in undiluted shots, Fox’s self-deprecating sense of humor takes the reader on a journey where corruption is common, queuing non-existent, and public rudeness rampant, but personal hospitality is warm and endearing.
“It is important to note that I am not so much as making fun of Ukranian life and culture, but rather myself in Ukranian life and culture,” Fox said. “A fish out of water, so to speak.”
It is apropos that the book is offered through Fish Out of Water Books in Ann Arbor, its first offering. The company hopes to publish more true life stories about adventures around the world, down the block or in-between.
For more information, go to fowbooks.com, or contact Jon and Laurie Wilson at [email protected].
Fox, a teacher at Ann Arbor Huron High School and a published, award-winning writer, graduated from Dearborn Edsel Ford High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in communications at the University of Michigan, and a master’s in teaching at Wayne State University. He also put in two stints as a reporter for the Times-Herald Newspapers.
EFHS English teacher Anne Gautreau, to whom the book is dedicated, recognized his writing talent before he did, and encouraged it, Fox said.
Gautreau said as a student, Fox was receptive to ideas and learning, and she enjoyed reading his narrative journal entries.
“His journal was magic to read,” Gautreau said. “I can still remember the delight and the wonderful quirky observations he would make about life and the wonderful, unique ways of articulating his ideas.”
She said she would often tell Fox to turn a journal entry into a story.
“He had this dead-on, droll sense of humor,” Gautreau said. “He would always spot the absurdity of life.”
She said he was into paradox and irony, the underpinnings, the tension of opposites that provides enough suspense for the words to “stay in the air.”
His class presentation skills were captivating as well, and Gautreau said she could see him teaching someday.
“He was always the guy who was willing to go out there and take a chance, take a risk,” Gautreau said. “But at the same time I think he was very honest in his own heart.
“He had that kind of trepidatious fear of, ‘Oh, no. This could go terribly wrong,’ and yet he was always willing to pursue.”
Gautreau said the memoir shows Fox’s self-deprecating sense of humor, and she loves the fact that he shared his story and romance with others in his book.
Fox said he has had mild success with script writing the past 15 years, and when the option expired on the “Love and Vodka” script, he decided to turn it into a memoir.
“My hope is to come full circle and still get it produced as a movie,” Fox said.
Because the story was originally written for the screen, Fox’s narrative is rich in detail, and his narrative brings the story to life for the reader.
While on the ancient plane that brings him into Ukraine, he describes the experience with all his senses, from the overwhelming smell of body odor, and the stench of pickled herring, to the sight of an in-flight Ukrainian newspaper with full-color nudes, to the sound of a mechanic drilling into the plane’s ceiling in mid-flight.
When the passengers applaud upon landing, Fox knew he wasn’t in Michigan anymore.
Throughout Fox’s descriptive narrative, readers accompany him on his visit, experiencing each culture shock and unfamiliar custom.
He learns how to jockey for position, since lines are non-existent or constantly challenged.
He discovers the contrast between the sullen, angry appearance of Ukrainians in public to the unabashed warmth and hospitality in their homes.
He sees the poverty in the missing sewer covers, stolen for scrap, in the potholed and cratered, lane-less roads that make one long for Michigan’s comparably smooth freeways, and he sees the pollution and waste left behind by the failed Soviet regime.
He learns that Ukrainians have no concept of American sarcasm, while he struggles to understand the dark humor of their jokes.
He discovers the serious pitfalls of vodka shots, and the touching if not somewhat terrifying methods used to sober him up when he ingests a near lethal amount of alcohol.
As he tours the country, he learns about centuries of history, from the Greek colonies to the 20th century mass starvation and unintended genocide when the Soviets collectivized the farms in the “breadbasket of Europe.”
As he swims in rivers, Fox realizes the water flowed past Chernobyl. He sees the lack of consumer goods, the black market economy, and the rampant corruption on all levels, from bus drivers to policemen.
Fox describes packed trolley cars, decrepit cable cars and Ferris wheels without safety features, and the lack of potable water, and primitive pay toilets.
While he finds many Ukrainians rude and distrustful of foreigners in public, he is astonished and humbled by the private hospitality of friends faced with limited resources.
Fox takes the reader on a fascinating travelogue where the senses come to life, from a crowing rooster, to cuckoo birds that “sound like the clocks,” to the chicken chased around the yard that becomes the next meal.
He never takes himself too seriously, and his words effortlessly bring a distant land to life in a vibrant way.
Fox said writing is as much a part of his life as breathing and eating, and he compares it to people who exercise daily so they don’t feel out of sorts.
“For me, writing is just like that,” Fox said. “It is like muscle memory. Or like a drug.
“It has become such a habit that I don’t ever feel the need to force myself. I just do it, and get little sleep as a result of it.”