Bonfire of the Bathroom Vanities

Gary Shteyngart; illustration by Joanna Neborsky

The rambunctious satires of Gary Shteyngart have previously had one foot rooting around the real-life New York City, the other foot dug into the rubble and riches of post-Soviet republics or the oddly similar rubble and riches of an imaginary dystopian New York. In The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, his first novel, he describes Vladimir Girshkin on his twenty-fifth birthday as divided almost evenly between there and here: “He had lived in Russia for twelve years, and then there were the thirteen years spent here. That was his life—it added up.” Over the course of the novel, Vladimir seeks love and success in both worlds, from the smooth, pious liberality of his girlfriend’s Upper East Side parents to the cheerful greed and brutality of a tracksuited bunch of Russian mobsters in an Eastern European city based on Prague.

In Absurdistan, Shteyngart’s next book, the hero is, like Vlad, born in the Soviet Union and educated in the US. Misha, a “buttery” 325 pounds and the son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, loves rap and a girl who describes herself as “half Puerto Rican. And half German. And half Mexican and Irish. But I was raised mostly Dominican.” Like Vladimir, Misha is a man of the old world and the new.

The hero of Shteyngart’s third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, was born in a New York City that turns him into an immigrant in his own home. The text-message epistolary novel takes place in a future New York that has imploded into an authoritarian regime, the authority in question being money.

In Lake Success, his new novel, Shteyngart has shifted to recognizably American soil, specifically the United States that rolls beneath the wheels of a Greyhound bus. Barry Cohen is a hedge-fund manager who escapes his obscenely wealthy New York life by running off on a red-state road trip. It is just before the 2016 presidential election. And because of the timing, the geography of the South and the West, the political references, and the poor and middle-class people Barry meets on his travels, Lake Success presents itself as a book about America. But Barry is just a tourist in America. Lake Success is really a New York story, and a good one.

New York towers avariciously above the other places Barry visits, the moral squalor of its Wall Street elite meticulously rendered. Barry gauges his place in the world with the precision of the rare watches he collects, and measures his rise quite literally floor by floor of the building where he lives, in a condo just one floor below Rupert Murdoch’s. During dinner with neighbors—on the lowly third floor—Barry looks up their two-bedroom apartment on Zillow to see how much they paid for it: a mere $3,800,000, less than a fifth the price he paid for his floor-through place…

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