The timing is right for Gary Shteyngart’s big swing. Having completed a trio of ingeniously satirical novels, most recently his 2010 dystopia Super Sad True Love Story, as well as an innovative memoir, his literary prowess has long been undeniable. Over his career, he’s singularly rendered American culture’s absurdities with flair, fun, and bits of melancholy.
So we reach Lake Success — Shteyngart’s crack at the Great American Novel and his commentary on Trump country. His hero is Barry Cohen, a hedge-fund millionaire married to a lawyer named Seema. The book opens on Barry wandering New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, his face bloodied. He’s escaping his life: his autistic son with whom he can’t connect, his wife whose brilliance is matched only by her resentments, his money. He stumbles onto a Greyhound and sets out on a cross-country journey — to find his college love, theoretically, but really to reclaim himself.
The backdrop, naturally, is Trump’s America — elites (like Seema) discussing the election with pretentious indifference back in New York; average Americans illuminating the president’s appeal in the heartland. Shteyngart is jumpy but curious here. His first novel in seven years, Lake Success is based on the author’s own road trip, and each city stop in the novel is peppered with stranger-than-fiction detail. Yet it can’t help but seem a little well-trodden all the same. Shteyngart empathetically draws the divide between Barry’s privilege and the struggles faced by those he comes into contact with, though not without a little inevitable condescension. “You go around and you do things and you don’t know why you do them,” he’s told at one point. “And that’s the story of your gender writ large.”
This is indicative less of an intriguing character flaw than a weakness in Shteyngart’s characterization. Lake Success untangles major themes, with a wicked feel for modern life’s aimless chatter (“They continued to talk about Trump on autopilot, the way people were doing that summer”), but it’s lacking in soul. Each person Barry meets, like an impressionable young drug dealer, is reduced to a type, an idea in human form. If the intent is to broadly reveal the state of the country — through a Shteyngartian lens, of course — the execution is oddly myopic. Superior is the action back in New York, the “bubble” where the book is unquestionably most comfortable: The satire here sticks, and Seema is fleshed out effectively as she embarks on an affair with an obnoxious literary type while still tending to her troubled son, Shiva. Shteyngart’s treatment of Shiva’s autism is respectful and engaged, and he humanely centers the subject as the novel rolls on; this marks the surprising, earnest highlight in Lake Success’ mishmash of ideas, tones, and stopovers. It’s where you can feel the novel’s heartbeat, where you can strike an emotional connection.
Yet this is, predominantly, Barry’s story. And as the abruptly sad but qualifying conclusion indicates, even Shteyngart’s edge — aimed at the 0.1 percent — is a bit dulled. Why? For the answer, it’s worth looking to Barry as the novel’s guide, the eyes through which a polarized and angry country comes alive. Perhaps it’s the nature of what feels fresh, sharp, and needed in this bizarre new world. For what can yet another entitled, delusional, wealthy white man tell us about where we’ve gone wrong? B