It’s the summer of 2016, on the verge of the Trump election, and financier Barry Cohen is on the run. He’s running from an SEC insider trading indictment. He’s running from the confirmation of autism in his three-year-old son. And he’s running from his marriage and his high-flying Manhattan lifestyle.
Barry heads to Port Authority with two hundred dollars and a suitcase full of his beloved vintage wristwatches with plans to duplicate a bus trip he took twenty-four years earlier. He’s determined to reunite with his Princeton sweetheart, Layla, and by doing so to find his nineteen-year-old self. But Barry hasn’t spoken with Layla in decades. And he didn’t bring his cellphone.
Lake Success (Random House), Gary Shteyngart’s fourth novel, is as clever and entertaining as his earlier work (Super Sad True Love Story, Absurdistan
As Barry enters Port Authority drunk, battered and bloodied after his wife and nanny attacked him for trying at three a.m. to bully his son into saying “Wa-
Early in the morning, Barry descends into Port Authority, which he describes smelling like someone had “eaten a fish sandwich” and decides, “it’s not good here. It’s not good at all.” He interacts with a woman wearing “purple mesh bunny ears and a wife beater with the word PARIS” writ large in rhinestones and a “trans woman eating a bag of Lay’s with a lot of emphasis.”
The ticket counter is shuttered due to “technics difficulty.” People are pilling up. Nearby the seating is full, and the overflow is perched on luggage. A revelation of the term “Trump phenomenon” hits him. Here and on the road, Barry experiences a view of America vastly different from the world he has grown accustomed to while operating the multi-billion dollar hedge fund This Side of Capital and living in a four-thousand-square-foot apartment “one floor below Rupert Murdock”.
We have met Barry and his Master of the Universe type before, most notably in Sherman McCoy, Tom Wolfe’s anti-hero in The Bonfire of the Vanities, the iconic story about greed, ambition, social class and politics of the 1980s. In Lake Success, we are treated to an update, thirty years later.
The contrast between the classes is primarily demonstrated in chapters that alternate between Barry’s travels by “Hound” and his wife and son’s life in Manhattan after he abandons them. When Barry leaves, Seema, his wife, who is as distraught and ashamed by the autism diagnosis of their only child, quickly takes up with a Guatemalan writer. The affair they have is as distractive for her as her son’s illness.
One of the more memorable scenes in the novel is Seema’s preparations for a play date between their son Shiva and a child “not on the spectrum.” She meets with their son’s “team” of occupational, physical and behavioral therapists and social worker to bandy about ideal scenarios for the playdate.
When one therapist finally suggests that Seema simply tell the other parents that their son is autistic, she silently nods but doesn’t take her advice. On the day of the play date, in the ideal sensory environment, Shiva attacks the child within minutes of him entering their apartment and then begins to ram his head into a wall.
Barry is presented in a way that is by turns warm and cold, rational and irrational, and sensitive and cruel. He steals from some people but wants to save others. He’s a loner, and he’s gregarious, but the latter didn’t come naturally. Barry was a social-misfit who taught himself “friend moves” in elementary school so he could be adept at socializing with “people who aren’t smart.”
It’s a transformation Barry credits for later making him the “friendliest guy in the industry” and “hundreds of millions of dollars.” The dichotomy that exists within Barry forces us to see him not so differently from his son. As we come to understand Barry and try to make sense of how he and our country have gotten to this point, during what Shteyngart refers to as the “Trump Era,” we are forced to wonder what this says about many successful and powerful individuals.
Lake Success is now available for purchase.
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ABOUT GARY SHTEYNGART:
Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972 and came to the United States seven years later. He is the author of the novels Super Sad True Love Story, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and was selected as one of the best books of the year by more than forty news journals and magazines around the world; Absurdistan, which was chosen as one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review and Time magazine; and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, winner of the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Travel + Leisure, Esquire, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and many other publications and has been translated into twenty-six languages. Shteyngart lives in New York City and upstate New York.