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Book Review: The Humorless Ladies of Border Control 

click to enlarge The New Press, 2016, $26.95
  • The New Press, 2016, $26.95

The term punk rock conjures many things: rebellion, antiauthoritarianism, unbridled rage, raw power, to name a few. In The Humorless Ladies of Border Control, Bard music teacher Franz Nicolay, recently rated number one of punk's 10 best accordion players, adds "passport" to that list. On the face of it, this captivating travelogue/adventure tale/memoir, Nicolay's first book, is a chronicle of five years—2009 to 2014—in which Nicolay traverses Eastern Europe, Russia, and China, a banjo in one hand, a guitar in the other, and an accordion on his back. (Occasionally, his wife, fellow Bard professor and performing cohort Maria Sonevytsky, accompanies.) He alights in venues booked for him by members of an underground, cyber dependent Russian punk network, and performs what he calls "modern vaudeville with full-throated songs and stories shamelessly strident, stentorian, and more than a little sentimental." But self-proclaimed "Hapsburg mongrel" Nicolay, a US-born, NYU-trained composer, and former bass player in "the world's greatest bar band," the Hold Steady, offers much more than mere diary entries. For starters, he brings with him some of the great travel writers of yore: Chekhov, Orwell, Rebecca West, and 19th-century aristocrat Marquis de Custine, all explorers of the same routes as Nicolay, all sharing his contagious fascination for the region. Their words, interspersed with Nicolay's lively, often gorgeous prose, add historical context, and a kind of company-across-the-ages avid readers will appreciate.

Quite by chance, Nicolay is in Ukraine when Malaysian jet MH370 is shot down, when Putin invades, and when Pussy Riot is jailed. These are some of the most edifying—and scary—passages of The Humorless Ladies of Border Control. Outside his US citizen bubble, Nicolay talks to barflies, musicians, disgruntled elder punks, and average folks, and duly records the ground-level pulse of a world power in real turmoil. His conversations with disenfranchised, disappointed common folk ("punk" and otherwise) in the thrall of authoritarian, nationalist Putin feel eerily prescient.

Nicolay can fit a lot of information into his passages, and that's cool, but his work really shines in beautiful turns of phrase that instantly transport. Of a 24-hour train ride to St. Petersburg: "Through the window coquettish beech leaves flashed their silver undersides in the breeze....I awoke four hours from St. Petersburg in a new landscape: thick birch and conifers of military bearing punctuating patches of swamp." In St. Petersburg: "the upwardly mobile vulgarity of the new Russia resisted the staid gravity of the imperial architecture." Of an encounter with a Russian child on a train: "A hyperactive, malevolent tempest in a green tank top, he cackled in my face, made a grab for my phone, and raced out the door."

For one of his tours, Nicolay took only one suit, which grew so funky that he and his wife ceremoniously burned it when he returned home. On another leg, his laptop was stolen, along with all his cash and his passport. Thankfully, his memory remained intact. Although he claims to be done with the lifestyle ("You don't travel for comfort, you travel to justify the daily discomfort"), this book will undoubtedly inspire other intrepid artists—punks and as-yet-undefined—to use their work as a means to get out in the flesh-and-blood world, get dirty, forsake comfort, and find the truth.

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