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Our Country Friends

Review

Our Country Friends

Considering its impact on our lives, it’s inevitable that the coronavirus pandemic someday will spawn a sizable body of fiction. Gary Shteyngart’s perceptive, wry and often moving OUR COUNTRY FRIENDS is an early contribution that sets a high bar for the many that will come after.

Evoking the spirit of Boccaccio’s THE DECAMERON, the novel follows eight characters --- seven adults and one child --- who gather in New York’s Hudson Valley, where Shteyngart has a home, to avoid the “kernels of a growing tragedy” that’s only beginning to come into focus in March 2020. Alexander (“Sasha”) Senderovsky, a writer, and his psychiatrist wife Masha live there in the “House on the Hill” with Natasha (“Nat”), their eight-year-old adopted daughter from China who’s obsessed with K-pop, especially the Korean boy band BTS.

In addition to their impressive residence, the Senderovskys’ 100-acre property features five bungalows that will serve as their guests’ homes for the next four months. Two of the visitors --- Karen Cho, an app developer the sale of whose company has gifted her with instant wealth (and a few lawsuits), and Vinod Mehta, like Sasha a writer and former college professor --- have histories with their host that date back to their teenage years as the children of immigrant families in Queens.

"Everyone who lived through the fraught experience of 2020 will have vivid and enduring memories of that 'year of imperfect vision.' Whatever those may be, they’ll be sharpened when viewed through the lens of this keenly intelligent novel."

Rounding out the group are Ed Kim, a peripatetic native of Korea and friend of Sasha’s since their 20s; Dee Cameron, one of Sasha’s former students in his “drunken wreck of a writing workshop,” whose essays evoke comparisons to Joan Didion; and a character known only as “the Actor,” who’s collaborating on a project to turn one of Sasha’s early novels into a television series. There’s a lot riding on the success of that effort --- now entering its seventh year with no end in sight --- including Sasha’s hope to retain their country retreat while continuing to pay Nat’s $59,000 annual tuition at a private school known as the “Kindness Academy.”

Relying on an omniscient narrator and frequent shifts of perspective among all the adult characters, Shteyngart weaves an elaborate web of emotional, sexual and professional connections, some of which are influenced --- in the case of Sasha, Vinod and Karen --- by events dating back more than 30 years. Karen’s dating app, Tröö Emotions, creates an unanticipated connection between the Actor and Dee that sparks the first of the novel’s many romantic entanglements, some of which play out on social media, “which meant it had been imprinted on the face of God,” as Dee, at least, thinks of it. Hovering over all of them is the ominous presence of a mysterious black pickup truck with a bumper sticker that reads SLEGS BLANKES (“Whites Only” in Afrikaans) that appears periodically on and around the property.

But as much as OUR COUNTRY FRIENDS is a story about a small group of privileged people groping for a secure footing amid the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic’s early days as it rampaged through New York City (“The virus had roamed the earth but had chosen to settle down there”), it’s also a sophisticated exploration of subjects that include immigration, assimilation, the complexities of enduring friendship and the pain of thwarted ambition.

The last of these plays out most poignantly in the story of Sasha and Vinod, who’s a decade past an encounter with lung cancer and who, unlike Sasha, never gained a foothold in academia or the literary world. “Sasha’s career peaked so long ago I can hardly remember what all the hullabaloo was about. Russia something something,” observes the Actor in a conversation with Dee. But what comes to light after Vinod’s arrival is that, out of professional jealousy, Sasha actively discouraged him from seeking an agent for his long-ago first novel, even though Sasha clearly recognized its quality. This brings about both a reckoning and a reappraisal of their friendship.

Midway through the novel, the refugees learn of the murder of George Floyd, an event that  heightens at least Sasha’s sense of otherness, though memories of their early years are never far from the minds of his fellow immigrants. Reflecting on that tragedy, he notes that Floyd “could have been a Russian, a Korean, a Gujarati. All of us, Senderovsky thought, are in service to an order that has long predated us. All of us have come to feast on this land of bondage. And all of us are useful and expendable in turn.”  

While there are plenty of serious moments like these in OUR COUNTRY FRIENDS, it would not be a Gary Shteyngart novel without frequent flashes of his wit. The picture of a much younger Sasha accompanying a book review showed him “posed in the most serious hand-on-chin Russian-novelist way possible (he looked like he was about to rescind serfdom with his next sentence).” The first time everyone gathers on the ample covered porch where the group meets every evening to consume the elaborate meals Ed prepares, Shteyngart describes how they were all seated “at a healthy remove from one another, as if they were organized criminals or dignitaries at the League of Nations.” He even pokes self-deprecating fun at the “[s]tranded social novelists up and down the river” who “dutifully photographed hard-to-identify flowers and took notes on the appearance of gathering storm fronts and menacing thunderheads.”

In contrast to the early months of the pandemic, when some days seemed to stretch on for weeks, OUR COUNTRY FRIENDS flows so smoothly and gracefully that our parting from its characters almost feels as if it comes too quickly. Everyone who lived through the fraught experience of 2020 will have vivid and enduring memories of that “year of imperfect vision.” Whatever those may be, they will be sharpened when viewed through the lens of this keenly intelligent novel.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on November 5, 2021

Our Country Friends
by Gary Shteyngart

  • Publication Date: November 2, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1984855123
  • ISBN-13: 9781984855121