Barry Cohen is on the lam. Multi-billionaire hedge-fund capitalist, collector of expensive watches, and engineer of the intricate mechanisms that trap him in his tony, Manhattan penthouse life — Barry packs his favorite timepieces into a rollerboard and absconds in the middle of the night. Ditching his credit cards, his wallet, all that ties him to his tremendous wealth, he boards a Greyhound bus headed for a college ex-girlfriend in Richmond, Virginia. Wife Seema is in the rearview, along with their son, Shiva, struggling with seemingly low-functioning autism in a world that barely forgives imperfections. A grain of sand in the clockwork of 1-percenter privilege.
What follows is an honest portrayal of “the rest of us” America through Barry’s increasingly weary eyes. It’s not necessarily untrue that Barry aims to find his ex-girlfriend — this does occur and is resolved accordingly — but more, Barry is searching for some semblance of the American Dream. Not Uncle Sam but rather a sort of Aunt Samantha: a “thick woman… with many stories to tell who would bring him a plate of vinegary beans and pulled pork.” At some diner in flyover-town USA, they will talk as though they are old friends, and she will sanction his feelings, his goals. “Hush, child. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Everyone gets to start over again. This America, hon. One dream dies, you get another.”
While this scene never really takes place, Shteyngart deftly navigates a series of authentic and eye-opening interactions — if not always for us, then at least for the privileged New York capitalist. Barry cannot stop bragging about a “Mexican man” who falls asleep on his shoulder. He confers with a crack dealer in Baltimore, reconnects with an old peer who fat-fingered his way out of Barry’s “This Side of Capital” fund. Cities and landscapes pass by with their fleeting encounters: peregrine sex in Atlanta, red-hatters preaching gospel and racism in heartland Texas. Gringo bars near the border in Ciudad Juarez.
It is in this adventurer’s tale, through the kaleidoscope of countryside, that Shteyngart will inevitably earn his highest marks. And not unjustly so — Barry’s transformation feels earned, from “socialism”-decrying socialite to humbled, perhaps even thoughtful absentee father. Loose ends aren’t tied up neatly so much as tucked, precisely, into a satisfying conclusion.
Praises should be distributed in equal measures, however, to the coinciding plot we receive through Seema Cohen’s point of view. She deftly, if imperfectly, navigates a tangled web of societal pressures and multi-level tiers of secret-keeping. An affair with a writer in her building, the very separate relationship with his wife and son, both neighbors and playmates. Her own son’s “diagnosis,” which she cannot at first publicize to any circles beyond their nanny/part-time grandmother. And too she is shown to possess even deeper, darker truths that must be bricked up within her soul, only to burst through the cracks in rare losses of composure. While Barry Cohen sustains his own arc, it is Seema’s transformation that proves perhaps more impressive. The concrete results of this transformation cannot be measured against a performance index nor any final net worth but yet feel all the more rewarding by story’s end.
Lake Success serves as a vivid, colorful pastoral of America in all its glamour, blemishes, and pockmarks. And, too, the novel reminds us that the “American Dream” is gone because it never truly existed in the first place. We are nation of folks just trying to figure it out day after day, as best we can. So pull up a chair, have some vinegary beans and pulled pork. Don’t be so hard on yourself. One dream dies, you get another.
Note: Gary Shteyngart is a professor in the M.F.A. program at Columbia University, but the author of this review has not studied with him or discussed this novel with him.
Photo Courtesy of Penguin Random House