LAKE SUCCESS, by Gary Shteyngart. Random House, 338 pp., $28.
Good news, comrades. From one of our finest comic novelists comes a work with equal parts smarts and heart to go with the steady hilarity of its plot and prose. "Lake Success," by Russian-born Gary Shteyngart ("The Russian Debutante's Handbook," "Super Sad True Love Story," "Little Failure," etc.), is surely the funniest book of the year, indeed one of the best overall — ultimately, a rueful mash note to the author's adopted country (with an extra kiss blown to the Long Island village of the title). Like comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, Shteyngart mocks us relentlessly for the fools that we are. Unlike Cohen, he loves us all the more.
For six months in 2016, during the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the Trump election, the author took a trip across the country and back on Greyhound buses, visiting Baltimore, Richmond, Atlanta, Jackson, El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, Phoenix and La Jolla. On the trip, he wrote a draft of "Lake Success," which follows a distraught New York hedge fund manager on this same journey. "Barry Cohen, a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management, staggered into the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He was visibly drunk and bleeding. There was a clean slice above his left eye where the nanny's fingernail had gouged him and, from his wife, a teardrop scratch below his eye. It was 3:20 a.m." Barry's only luggage is a rollerboard suitcase containing six extremely valuable watches. (Shteyngart shares his character's obsession, and has published an article in The New Yorker about "Watch Idiot Savants.")
The reason for Barry's beatdown, it emerges, has to do with his recently diagnosed severely autistic son, a three-year-old named Shiva. Shiva's mother, a beautiful, brilliant, nonpracticing lawyer named Seema, is the daughter of Indian immigrants, and the extreme disparity in the couple's capacities to deal with this terrible news about their beloved child has broken this marriage along well-established fault lines. As Barry heads down the road in search of his old college girlfriend and the meaning of life, Seema begins an affair with a married Guatemalan-American writer in their luxury apartment building (some resemblance to the writer Francisco Goldman may be an inside joke) and works with her team of child-care providers and consultants to figure out how her nonverbal, completely unresponsive son might have a playdate.
Barry is just the biggest nerd you ever met in your life, obviously somewhere on the spectrum himself, a relentlessly likable unlikeable character. You have to go no farther than page 5 to find him thinking evil thoughts about an Indian man in the Port Authority, and rationalizing that "[h]e could hate him because his wife was Indian." Once on the bus, he wonders why his fellow passengers are wearing ski caps in the summer. "Was it because of drugs? Did drugs make them cold? There was something tender about poor people sleeping."
To bridge the yawning gap between himself and other humanoid life-forms, Barry developed what he calls "friend moves" back in middle school, where he practiced how to have conversations in front of the mirror for hours. It must have worked, because somehow this not-so-brilliant son of a swimming pool man from Queens rose to the helm of his own hedge fund, pretentiously christened This Side of Capital. "'Friendliest dude on the Street,' some young bro had once called him. No one else could lose money three years in a row and still have the Ahmeds of the world come calling."
The reader's first chance to observe Barry's friend moves comes when he stops in Baltimore. As a Baltimorean, I can assure you that Shteyngart does a great job on the area around our Greyhound bus station, where Barry buys some "pimp Juice" from a stand, and also meets a young crack dealer named Javon, on whom his friend moves work so effectively that he is given a free rock. This lump of crack will travel in his pocket all the way across America, a gun on the wall that Shteyngart plays with to fine effect before firing. His brief friendship with Javon inspires a dream that also travels with Barry — an Urban Watch Fund, which will galvanize disadvantaged children by providing them with entry-level Rolexes.
The unexpectedly beautiful ending of this book — and Long Islanders will be happy to hear that it includes a visit to Lake Success, a place with mythic resonance for Barry — is what takes it over the top. Much earlier, in regard to his wife and son, Barry reflects that he doesn't "know how to harvest love out of sorrow." He doesn't completely figure it out, but he comes a long, long way.