“I tried to visualize the Twin Palms while I lay there. What was inside. If the waiters wore tuxedos. How big it was. If it had secret entrances. If it spilled into the other buildings. Where you stood and where you sat. What you ate. I tried but I couldn’t even imagine it…”
How To Get Into the Twin Palms begins immediately with Waclawiak’s twenty-five year old main character pondering her “strange choice” to throw aside her Polish heritage and mimic the Russians that make up the Los Angeles neighborhood she is living in. This strong drive comes from her desire to gain entry to a trashy Russian night club called the Twin Palms that is the zenith of notoriety in the neighborhood. In doing so, she even chooses a Russian sounding now name from a list of the country’s most popular names: Anya.
Anya, who emigrated from Poland as a child during the Reagan administration, looks forward to her transformation but still harbors some unease,
I would never tell my mother. She only thought of [Russians] as crooks and beneath us. They felt the same about us, we were beneath them. It had always been a question of who was under whom.
Besides the physical transformation that Anya takes–push up bras, dying her blonde hair a dark unnatural raven, smoking super slim cigarettes like the Russian women outside of the Twin Palms–slivers of her past are also pieced together with the front narration. Glimpses of Anya’s childhood are placed in contrast to her Russian metamorphosis in LA. While she is putting on new clothes and contemplating her lack of knowledge with the Russian language, Anya tells anecdotes of first coming to the US, trying to shed the skin of her former Communist life and adapting to a glossy, new American upbringing. She is always trying to brush aside her Polish heritage (the reader doesn’t even find out her real name till close to the end!).
The real draw of this novel is Waclawiak’s ability to draw a character that is a lonely soul, lost in her desperation to figure herself out, all the while maintaining a sense of humor even in those miserable times. Anya was recently laid off from her job at a temp agency placing job seekers, relying solely on her unemployment check and the odd job of calling bingo numbers at a local church. Even her employment is influx and as Anya seeks more to change to Russian, her actual Polish roots are made even more visible.
When taken to a local Polish restaurant, Anya is uncomfortable and disappointed. She doesn’t want any of this food and Waclawiak describes the kitsch lining the walls of the restaurant. What this Polish family displays proudly is what makes Anya scurry further away from who she is.
There were sentences that I thought could have been polished more, but they were few. Waclawiak has a knack for writing very visceral scenes and these were truly my favorite. In the case of Anya’s zhlubby Russian lover Lev, who is another check off her list of “becoming Russian,” Waclawiak writes,
I fixed the sheets…dried sweat layered with new sweat. His smell. I inhaled deeply. It started making me sick. I kept inhaling anyway. Till the nausea came. I got up and ran to the bathroom. Kneeled in front of the toilet and waited for it to come up and when I saw that he had left a ring of shit in my toilet..it did.
These types of sentences remind the reader of both the absurdity of it all and the brutalness of Anya’s situation. True, she is choosing this transformation, but the act of masking herself is actually having the opposite effect.
While Anya is ruminating and inventing her identity, Los Angeles is suffering from devastating forest fires leaving ash all over in its wake. The city is changing–buildings are burning, ash cloaking the city–and it is very much its own character in the novel. In fact, the argument can be made that, although this is Anya’s transformation story, everyone and everything is reshaping. Everyone wears a mask whether they consciously build one like Anya or not. Even the Russian women in their skin-tight clothing and sky-high heels who Anya wishes to emulate are donning nothing more than covers. In a particular favorite passage, Anya is fighting with a woman and smears the woman’s make-up on her hand before knocking her in the face, revealing who this woman actually is,
Her dentures flew out and left a pink-gummed crevice. She squealed and I saw her Soviet-era teeth break into bits, tooth by tooth on the bathroom floor, sliding beneath the toilet. She covered her mouth and yelped. A gaping-mouthed old woman. She didn’t look sinister anymore. She looked old and poor.
Of course the Twin Palms symbolizes more than a club. When we are lost, we dream and pine for a cure to drag us from our rut. We look to the glitzy and exotic. Whether we attain that goal we seek is inconsequential; it’s about the journey and that’s what really matters.