Gary Shteyngart‘s three earlier novels (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story) as well as his memoir (Little Failure) were all hilarious. His latest novel, Lake Success, isn’t. Although it’s satirical to a fault, the book is fundamentally a very sad story. What else could you expect from the tale of a multimillionaire hedge fund manager who has a nervous breakdown and flees across the country in Greyhound buses?
No, it’s not a nervous breakdown
Of course, nowhere in Lake Success does anyone, least of all protagonist Barry Cohen, admit to anything like a nervous breakdown. No. It’s a midlife crisis. After all, “a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management” can afford better. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine any nervous breakdown leading to anything quite so messy as Barry’s experiences on the road.
Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart (2018) 352 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
Enough to freak out just about anyone
The roots of Barry’s distress are not hard to find. He married a gorgeous Indian-American woman fourteen years younger who doesn’t love him. (“All we have left between us is our money.”) They have a severely autistic three-year-old son who is nonverbal and throws tantrums. Barry has lost a billion dollars of his clients’ money on a spectacularly ill-advised trade. Now the SEC is on his trail. And he has no friends. Oh, and by the way, the story is set in 2016 during the height of the presidential election campaign, with Donald Trump on the way to victory. All that would be enough to freak out just about anyone.
A watch collection packed into a rollerboard
So, one day after a screaming match with his wife and their nanny, Barry sets out with his rollerboard packed with the absurdly expensive watches in his collection. (Shteyngart never explains how one packs watches into a rollerboard.) Off he goes to the Greyhound station, dumping his mobile phone and his American Express Black Card in the trash on the way. Barry is off to Richmond, Virginia, to see the sweetheart he hasn’t seen in twenty years.
A little slow on the uptake
Lake Success is a little slow on the uptake, but it quickly gathers steam. Like Shteyngart’s other work, it’s eminently readable. The story is engaging if deliberately overdrawn for satirical effect. And, ultimately, the characters’ actions are fundamentally credible.
Collette Bancroft, the Book Editor of the Tampa Bay Times, was more generous in her assessment of the novel. She found it “a terrific new comic novel.” Ron Charles, the Book World critic of the Washington Post, was equally enthusiastic. “His new book is not insanely funny nor hilariously absurd,” he wrote. “It’s better than that. A mature blending of the author’s signature wit and melancholy, ‘Lake Success’ feels timely but not fleeting.” And Marcel Theroux, writing in the Guardian, referred to the book as “an ambitious state-of-the-nation novel about the miasma of discontents that produced the astonishing election result of 2016.”
For further reading
For my review of the author’s memoir, Little Failure, see From the gifted novelist Gary Shteyngart, a hilarious memoir. I reviewed Super Sad True Love Story at Gary Shteyngart’s dark vision of the future.
Super Sad True Love Story is one of Top 10 great popular novels reviewed on this site.
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