By Gary Shteyngart
Random House. 352 pp. $28
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Adjust your expectations when you pick up Gary Shteyngart's Lake Success. It's neither insanely funny nor hilariously absurd. It's better than that. A mature blending of the author's signature wit and melancholy, its bold ambition to capture the nation and the era is enriched by its shrewd attention to the challenges and sorrows of parenthood.
Barry Cohen, the glad-handing protagonist, repels our sympathy even while laying claim to it. Barry is a 40-something hedge-fund manager who lives high in the clouds of his own narcissism. He sips $20,000-a-glass whiskey and imagines that his palatial Manhattan existence is well-deserved. The very incarnation of white male privilege, Barry is the "friendliest dude," made all the more exasperating by his misimpression, despite the vampiric nature of his work, that he's a man of deep moral wisdom and empathy.
As Lake Success opens, Barry has lost nearly a billion dollars, and the SEC is close to indicting him for insider trading, but he's still cocooned in optimism. What's harder for him to ignore is that his wife finds him intolerable, and that his son has been diagnosed on the severe end of the autism spectrum. Suddenly, Barry's perfectly curated life feels imperiled. Drunk on a fantasy of self-reliance so thick it obscures his own cowardice, he decides to head off across America on a Greyhound bus — without his cellphone or credit cards, just a suitcase of expensive watches. His plan, so far as he has one, is to track down an old college girlfriend in El Paso and begin his life again.
As Barry lights out for the territory, he imagines he's reenacting Jack Kerouac's On the Road or confronting the world like Hemingway or even reinventing himself like Jay Gatsby. If he were better-read, he'd recognize he's just running away from his wife and son like Harry Angstrom in Rabbit, Run. He seems unconcerned about the demarcations among storytelling, delusion, and fraud. (With no apparent irony, he calls his hedge fund "This Side of Capital" after the Fitzgerald novel This Side of Paradise.)
There's something uncanny about Shteyngart's ability to inhabit this man's boundless confidence, his neediness, his juvenile tendency to fall in love and imagine everyone as a life-changing friend. Barry's affection is a strange species of egoism that reduces others to mere objects of his generosity. For instance, a few minutes after chatting with a young black man on a bus that smells like urine, Barry considers adopting him. Perhaps, he thinks, he should start a foundation "that would help urban youth buy their first mechanical watch and learn to care for it."
A few hundred pages of watching Shteyngart skewer Barry could grow tedious, but Lake Success has a wider vision and deeper sympathies. For one thing, the story takes place during the 2016 presidential election, as Donald Trump emerges from the muck of America's latent racism and anti-intellectualism. Struggle as he might, Barry has trouble ignoring the growing contradictions between his benevolent ideals and his conservative politics.
The most remarkable passages of Lake Success take place when the novel shifts back to Manhattan, where Barry's wife, Seema, struggles to raise their son who has autism. Naturally, unlimited wealth eases some of the attendant challenges: Seema can afford to convene a small army of therapists to plan her son's first play date. But Shteyngart seems to have somehow gained entrance into a world even more secretive than the realm of high finance. For all its droll send-up of the moneyed class, Lake Success is one of the most heartbreaking novels I've read about raising a child with special needs, and as the father of a daughter with cerebral palsy, I've read many of them. In Seema's ferocious love and Barry's flight reflex, I recognize the storm of conflicting emotions that parents like me endure — from our poisonous sense of failure to our shameful resentment of parents with typical children. Shteyngart captures all that just right, along with the tender moments, the tiny breakthroughs, the miraculous flashes of connection that make such a life endurable.
If Barry eventually receives a gentler punishment than he would seem to deserve, that may be a reflection of Shteyngart's essentially forgiving nature. But it's also the mark of a novel in which comedy and pathos are exquisitely balanced.