Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Lake Success’
Lake Success: A Novel By Gary Shteyngart (Random House, 339 pp. $28)
It is not easy to like, much less respect, Barry Cohen, a morally corrupt but gleefully successful hedge-fund macher in Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, Lake Success.
In this rollicking, fast-paced tale set in 2016, Barry, a narcissist, confronts unanticipated developments in his life that undermine the delight in his 4,000-square-foot Manhattan apartment. His wife, Seema, a Yale Law School graduate who stays home to care for Shiva, their severely autistic young son, is fed up with him. And, having lost $800 million after investing in a company that makes outrageously expensive life-saving drugs, Barry is facing charges of insider trading that could send him to prison for years—doubtless a riff on real-life hedge-fund manager Martin Shkreli, who was convicted of security fraud
Who wouldn’t be on the verge of a breakdown? But Shteyngart has a bigger story to tell, about grifters, hustlers and smug millionaires who lead double lives without a shadow of guilt.
Impulsively, Barry abandons it all—including his American Express black card and cellphone—and sets off on a Greyhound bus, ostensibly to see a former girlfriend from his days at Princeton University and start his life over. In reality, however, he is seeking the country that Simon & Garfunkel sang about in the plaintive “America.”
Propelled by inner demons, Barry may be traveling with the underbelly of the American populace, but Shteyngart is also recalling certain signposts of American literature, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters in The Great Gatsby. Indeed, Barry’s hedge fund is called This Side of Capital, a nod to Fitzgerald’s debut novel, This Side of Paradise. And Lake Success is a real place, abutting Great Neck, N.Y., the setting of Gatsby’s West Egg and East Egg.
Shteyngart, who came to the United States from the Soviet Union as a child, grew up in Queens near Lake Success—the original site of the United Nations—so striving for success can be a metaphor for fulfilling the American dream.
Yet, one encounter after another on Barry’s four-month journey turns out to be unsuccessful. He overstays his welcome in Atlanta with a former employee whom he fired; he has an awkward encounter with his one-time girlfriend’s family; and he believes, mistakenly, that a young woman with whom he shares a night in a hotel has taken his prized possession, a luggage roll-on filled with priceless vintage watches.
Seema’s life in New York after her husband’s departure is a counterpoint to Barry’s. She has a long affair with a neighbor and is ferociously protective of her son; she is also worried about the presidential election.
Witty and sly, Shteyngart is mocking the nation’s politics, holding a mirror to today’s America, where he presumably believes decisions favor the wealthy. What, he seems to be saying, has happened to America’s moral compass?
Stewart Kampel is a frequent reviewer for Hadassah Magazine.