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Lake Success


Lake Success

During my time in the MFA writing program at Columbia University, I was lucky enough to take a class from Gary Shtynegart. Gary’s class (we were asked to call him Gary, and I use that informality here) was titled “The Hysterical Male,” and we read books like PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT, HERZOG and BARNEY’S VERSION for four months. It was a fascinating class for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which were Gary’s unfailing wit and the content itself.

When I opened Gary’s new novel, LAKE SUCCESS, his first in eight years, and read to the bottom of page two, I was not at all surprised to find that he was writing about a hysterical male. I even laughed out loud at the absurd thought processes and first-person narration of Barry Cohen --- the book’s protagonist, I guess? --- as he drunkenly tries to navigate Port Authority at 3am without calling his chief of staff or using his black Amex. About 15 pages in, I wondered if I was strong enough to handle 300+ pages of Barry as he makes his way across the country by Greyhound bus, chasing after his long-lost college girlfriend and running away from his beautiful, young wife, Seema, and his autistic three-year-old son, Shiva. Barry was going to be hard enough to handle on his own, but add in the fact that he’s actively leaving his family, including his disabled son? LAKE SUCCESS might be a tough book to get through.

But I was quite wrong.

"There are so many layers to LAKE SUCCESS that make it a brilliant, beautiful book.... Thirty pages in, I didn’t know if I could finish it. But by the end, it numbers easily among my favorite books of the year."

Sure, Barry is the worst. He’s a Princeton-educated forty-something white guy who lives in an exclusive Manhattan apartment building with a Madison Park address and owns a hedge fund called “This Side of Capital,” which he intended to be a clever and constant reference to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Because Barry naturally wishes he was a writer. But instead, he is a man with $2.4 billion of assets under management, drinks $20,000-a-glass whiskey, and obsessively collects rare watches. There’s also the issue of the SEC and FBI investigating Barry and his fund for insider trading. And then he abandons his family, essentially attacks his young autistic son, and skips town to escape his problems.

But nevertheless, I persisted.

Gary makes the brilliant move of switching narrators every other chapter. Just when I thought I couldn’t take Barry anymore, the chapter ended and Seema started narrating. Seema is many things: wife, Yale Law graduate, gorgeous, mother to a severely autistic boy, first-generation American, 29 years old, and alone. Alone with a nanny, chef, and an army of therapists to work with Shiva. But Seema isn’t the Lolita to Barry’s Humbert. She shouldn’t be pitied or thought of as a victim. She’s a complex character, struggling with Shiva and secretive about his autism but desperately needing to talk to someone about it besides the nanny and therapists. She’s also having an affair with the handsome writer who lives 17 floors below the Cohens, and has a neuron-typical son Shiva’s age and a doctor-wife who is working on a cure for Zika.

Add to all of this complexity a setting of the summer of 2016, and the political turmoil brought on by the Trump nomination and the subsequent mess of an election season. As Barry has an ON THE ROAD-esque experience traveling through the American south and west, Gary expertly takes the political barometer of the country while Seema and liberal New York contemplate what can only be Hillary’s impending victory.

There are so many layers to LAKE SUCCESS that make it a brilliant, beautiful book. Gary’s portrayal of parents struggling to deal with and adjust to having a disabled child is astounding. He perfectly captures the heartbreak that accompanies a diagnosis such as Shiva's and all the imagined futures lost with the utterance of a word, and follows it with the opposite reactions of determination and flight. The different ways in which people react to learning that Shiva is autistic and how they interact with the little boy are exquisite.

LAKE SUCCESS is very much a novel of journeys. Each character is on a journey that will change his or her life in one way or another. It is about families, masculinity, politics, shame, white-privilege, class differentials, America, immigrants, wealth, parenthood, and so much more. Thirty pages in, I didn’t know if I could finish it. But by the end, it numbers easily among my favorite books of the year.

Reviewed by Sarah Jackman on September 7, 2018

Lake Success
by Gary Shteyngart

  • Publication Date: June 4, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor, Satire
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812987209
  • ISBN-13: 9780812987201