Success" by Gary Shteyngart; Random House (338
night young lawyer Seema Cohen went to a Vogue party
hosted by billionaire Michael Bloomberg and there met
the man who would become her husband. At first, she wasn’t
sure she liked the glad-handing middle-aged hedge fund
guy who was clearly smitten with her.
"she went home and Googled Barry’s net worth and
found it comforting. A man that rich couldn’t be
stupid. Or, Seema thought now, was that the grand
fallacy of twenty-first-century America?"
a central question in Gary Shteyngart’s terrific new
comic novel, "Lake Success," as it follows
1-percenter Barry Cohen on a quixotic Greyhound bus ride
across America in flight from his family, at the surreal
height of the 2016 presidential campaign and election.
Success" is often satiric, deploying the same sharp
skills as Shteyngart’s earlier novels, like
"Super Sad True Love Story" and "The
Russian Debutante’s Handbook": a cool control of
tone, a Tom Wolfe-level eye for status markers, a knack
for making the outrageous sound all too plausible.
"Lake Success" has depths. Barry might be the
oblivious poster boy for white male privilege, but
Shteyngart makes us feel for the people around him,
especially Seema and their son.
son, a beautiful 3-year-old named Shiva who has never
spoken a word or looked another human being in the eye,
is the bond and the breaking point of Barry and Seema’s
marriage. Both are strivers. Barry, a non-observant Jew,
grew up in Queens, raised by a father who ran a pool
service, his mother dead in a car crash when he was 5.
Seema comes from Cleveland, the daughter of immigrants
from India; she has a law degree but shrugs away from
working after she marries and has a child.
first their carefully curated marriage is as dreamy as
the vista from their vast Manhattan apartment, with its
view from above of the Flatiron Building and, above
them, a penthouse owned by Rupert Murdoch.
when Shiva receives what they call "the
diagnosis" — he’s on the severe end of the
autism spectrum — curation fails.
novel opens with the events that send Barry to the bus
following a dinner with a couple who live in their
building. She’s a doctor, he’s a novelist Barry’s
never heard of, but Seema admires his books.
writer? In their building?" Barry thinks.
"Where even the one-bedrooms with a view of the
back side of a taco joint started at three million?
Something about that didn’t sit right with Barry, but
he let it go."
the writer turns out to be a suave and sexy Guatemalan,
Barry, no stranger to male dominance displays, goes
upstairs to fetch a $33,000 bottle of Japanese whiskey
from his collection.
whiskey is guzzled, the dinner ends badly, and when
Barry and Seema go upstairs things get worse. After a
physical altercation with his wife and Shiva’s devoted
nanny, Novie, he takes off.
packs a bag with "a fistful of underwear" and
the contents of his "Watcharium," his beloved
collection of timepieces. Nothing so vulgar as a common
Rolex; these are rare and pricey items, and the only
possessions he thinks to bring along:
couldn’t do this without the watches. He couldn’t
live without their insistent ticking and the predictable
spin of their balance wheels, that golden whir of motion
and light inside the watch that gave it the appearance
of having a soul. … The watches would help Barry stay
a Dante-esque descent into the Port Authority Terminal,
Barry sets out to find his Beatrice, aka his college
girlfriend. Layla Hayes is now living, Facebook tells
him, in El Paso. Before he even boards the bus, he
jettisons his smartphone. It’s not long before his
Amex black card is gone, too, leaving him dependent on
the kindness of strangers and long-lost acquaintances.
Barry despises Luis Goodman, the Guatemalan novelist, he
fancies himself a literary man, what with his minor in
creative writing at Princeton. He thinks of his journey
in novelistic terms, comparing himself to Hemingway and
Fitzgerald and, in a breathtakingly tone-deaf moment,
dreaming of writing about his trip as Kerouac did:
"On the Road but in thoughtful middle-aged
short, he’s the star of his own movie, as he has
always been. He blithely mooches off people with far
fewer resources than himself and is shocked when some of
them, with good reason, rebuff him.
stops in Richmond and Baltimore, he visits a former
employee, Jeff Park, now living happily in Atlanta. Jeff
was fired after making a typo that cost Barry’s hedge
fund millions, but he’s still a numbers geek:
"The average girl I date is five foot six, or an
inch taller than the national average," he tells
Barry. "I have a spreadsheet that lists the
attributes of each girl I’ve ever dated. It’s super
hang out, but when Barry asks for a "bridge
loan," Jeff turns him down, for reasons reminiscent
of the Pharma Bro case — Barry invested hugely in a
company that jacked up the prices of lifesaving
medications, including one Jeff’s father takes.
just one of the encounters Barry has with people who are
feeling the effects of political change, even before
Trump has been elected. Not that Barry himself supports
the man, even though many of his wealthy friends do.
had only learned to hate Trump," Shteyngart writes,
"after he had made fun of a disabled reporter at a
press conference, fluttering his arms around in
imitation of his affliction. Shiva did the same thing
— ‘flapping,’ it was called — whenever he tried
to express some great unspoken pleasure. Anyone who
could make fun of one of his son’s few private joys
didn’t deserve to live."
the Trump effect seems to go right over Barry’s head
when he reconnects with Layla, now a college professor,
and discovers that she’s being trolled horribly by
Nazis online because she teaches a class on the
Holocaust — they’re even threatening her 9-year-old
son, with whom Barry (briefly) bonds.
reunion with Layla goes bust after a nightmarish trip to
Mexico, and Barry rolls on toward La Jolla, where his
father, a former Democrat, has succumbed to the
zeitgeist, sporting a MAGA hat in his retirement:
"Barry was a moderate Republican, and his father
was a moderate Nazi. They were a moderate family."
alternates chapters about Barry’s travels with Seema’s
life in Manhattan. She tumbles into an affair with the
Guatemalan novelist, but quickly realizes that leaving
one narcissist for another isn’t a great plan.
so furious with Barry she doesn’t even try to find
him; instead, she comes to focus on her son. Her
relationship with Shiva is in many ways the opposite of
Barry’s: He flees a problem that can’t be solved by
throwing money at it, while she refuses to give up on
writes with humor and empathy about Seema’s efforts
and doubts: "Each time Seema saw a gaggle of
teenagers sitting cross-legged, absorbed in their
devices, tuned out of one another’s physicality, she
wondered if the world to come would be slightly more
hospitable to Shiva’s condition." And his
depiction of the relationship between the boy and his
grandfather after Seema’s parents move in is simply
journey, and Seema’s and Shiva’s, take unexpected
turns. Shteyngart’s satire raises timely questions
about the state of our nation; his humane story of a
family offers answers.