Review: Gary Shteyngart’s road novel in the time of Trump
“Lake Success: a Novel” (Random House), by Gary Shteyngart
It’s possible there’s a hedge fund bro out there whose heart is as big as his AUM (assets under management). Who thinks Donald Trump is scary, diversity is great and the solution to his mid-life crisis could be to, as the slogan once put it: “Go Greyhound and leave the driving to us.”
It’s possible but not likely, and part of the goofy, rambunctious charm of Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, “Lake Success,” is that he makes you believe in such a character and even to root for him on his quixotic cross-country bus journey of repentance and self-discovery.
When the novel opens, a battered and drunken hedge fund manager named Barry Cohen is in the Port Authority bus terminal, fleeing his crumbling marriage, autistic child and a looming SEC investigation. Just hours before, at a dinner party with a couple who lives in his fancy Manhattan apartment building, Barry’s wife, Seema, accused him of having no imagination, which wounded him to the core.
Hadn’t he secretly aspired to be a writer at Princeton? Named his hedge fund This Side of Capital after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel? Even thought of using material from this very bus trip to pen a “thoughtful, middle-aged” update to “On the Road”?
Awash in nostalgia, Barry buys a bus ticket to Richmond, Virginia, to visit the parents of his college girlfriend, Layla, whom he now regrets not marrying. He throws away his cellphone. Soon he’ll get rid of his credit cards, all to prove he could still be “out in the world solving his own problems.”
In the course of his travels, he’ll mentor a crack dealer in Baltimore, reconnect with Layla in El Paso, Texas, and pay grudging last respects to his difficult father at his grave in San Diego. He’ll also have sex with a man and hide his Jewish identity from white bigots on the bus.
“Lake Success” is a big-hearted book about many things. It’s a brilliant satire of hedge fund managers, their trophy wives and gaudy apartments; a heart-rending but ultimately hopeful account of raising a child on the spectrum; and a raucous celebration of racial, ethnic and gender identity in America today. It also explores the ways large and small that Trump has changed the country, rupturing relationships and forcing people to take sides.
In his acknowledgments, Shteyngart thanks Greyhound “for spiriting me from one coast of our troubled land to the other with a strange, almost melancholy competence.” It’s a ride you won’t want to miss.