Gary Shtyengart’s new book, “Lake Success,” his first novel in seven years, follows Barry Cohen, a hedge-fund trader under investigation from the SEC, as he bails on his marriage and his autistic toddler son in favor of a Greyhound bus ride in search of the “real America.” It’s a midlife crisis road-trip novel set in the summer of 2016, at the Dawn Of The Age Of Trump. I caught up with Gary on his book tour, a slightly higher-end epic journey than his protagonist’s. We somehow managed to navigate a conversation through bad cell phone connections, my new phone-recording app, and my endless neuroses about money.
Neal Pollack: This is not exactly “Fresh Air.” It’s more like “Stale Air.”
Gary Shteyngart: It’s fresh in its own way.
I guess. So like you, I’ve known some hedge-fund types in my life. And their attitude toward things kind of amazes me. If I spend a hundred dollars total at a restaurant, I’m terrified for weeks afterward that it’s going to somehow post-actively bankrupt me. I rarely spend money on anything that I don’t regret. Do you have a similar attitude toward money? Is that what drove you to write about these types of guys?
No, I wrote about them because there’s nobody left in Manhattan who isn’t associated with finance. I used to write about the creative class, but the creative class all moved to the Hudson Valley or Berlin or wherever. So I started wondering, who are these people? A couple of them were fans of my work, so I kind of met them through that. Many friendships blossomed and I just hung out with them for a couple of years.
Did you have experience with outrageous spending? Did they buy you meals you couldn’t have otherwise afforded?
They live this very limited existence. They have their club, and the Hamptons, and their apartment. I tried to open their minds. I took them to places where you could buy a meal for 50 bucks. They were shocked by that. They said, that’s how much a drink costs at one of my clubs. And the food was delicious. They were very impressed by the quality. The weird thing is, there’s nothing that great about their lives. The food is terrible, the relationships are hollow, the need for money is so overwhelming and never satisfying. In some ways, being in the middle class is more satisfying. You’re worried about money, you get the money, and then you have to worry about it again. That’s life for the whole planet. And when that’s replaced with a sort of game where the money doesn’t matter, it makes for a very surreal existence.
I always find myself wondering, when I see money depicted this way: Is it real?
Not really. But we all pay a price for it, in a way. The tax system is structured in such a way so that money is taken away from everyone and given to people who it doesn’t really make happy. Nobody wins in any of these scenarios. These people spend all their time betting against one another at the office, and then they get together and play poker for more sums of money. There’s so little going on.
I became kind of like the hedge-fund whisperer. I befriended them and I came to offer a sort of psychoanalysis. Not that I’m especially skilled. But they love that stuff. They need that stuff. And also I wasn’t competing with them. I wasn’t going to out-rich them, which is the only thing that they see as a potential worry. If there’s someone wealthier than them, then they’d have to act a certain way. So that was never a problem.
Were you kind of like a bohemian pet to them?
There were some real friendships made. These worlds interact so rarely that it was an interesting meeting of different types of people. They had some creative desires from college. Nobody wakes up and says I’m going to be a hedge-fund trader, especially our generation when hedge funds didn’t really exist. I reminded them of some of the passions they used to have. Also, they went to Princeton University, so they were pretty good writers, and had a pretty good sense of what storytelling was about. Most people from Princeton, though, Wall Street would eventually come a-callin’.
Did you ever have an opportunity like that?
No, I went to Oberlin, are you kidding me? Maybe I had an opportunity in Ice Cube Studies or something like that.
When you met with these hedge-fund guys did you find that some of them were actually married to writers? Artistic types?
No, but a lot of them were married to women who were a lot smarter than they were. Not just smarter, but also more credentialed. They had a useful, great career before they were married, had a wider cultural reach. You name it. They had it all. And also they lived in an almost feudal society. These women weren’t working, but they should have been working because they had so much to offer the world. That was quite fascinating.
It’s just so different than my reality.
Mine too. Obviously, we need money to survive and do certain things. But I just don’t want any more money. I want to keep the lights on and keep my kid fed and clothed and whatever, but there’s just nothing I want anymore. I’m done.
You’ve won awards, you’ve had a lot of success as far as the literary world goes. Has being successful changed your perspective? I don’t care how much how much money you have or how much you’ve made, but don’t you have more freedom to do what you want to do?
I don’t know. Mostly, when it comes to what I want to do, I’ve got to think of my readers. I have to connect with people, that’s very important. My readers are incredible. When I do these tours, they’re so sweet. They all have asthma and suffer from anxiety disorders and have interesting pets. I’m like “Wow, thank god you people exist, otherwise I don’t know what I’d be doing.”
All your readers have asthma?
I would say 70 to 80 percent for sure. Yeah. I’m in Seattle now, where everyone has asthma.
I used to tour. I don’t really anymore. I feel like the character in the Monty Python sketch asking “Does she go?” What is it like out there?
It’s incredible that there are still readers. What are they doing? Have they not heard of Netflix? But they’re here, and they’re as passionate as ever. Philip Roth wrote about that. He said there were only 30,000 readers left in the world. But boy, are they obsessed with being readers.
I feel like I’m chucking my work down a hole half the time.
Writers have to scramble. The old way where the writer sits back and writes his or her stuff and retreats to the attic and everything’s fine, that’s done. Now the writer has to hustle. Many people find that distasteful. You work hard at being a limited-liability corporation. And not everyone is good at that. You have to give good readings, you have to entertain the audience. Like you’re putting on a show.
You have to keep the money coming in…I’m kind of in a whatever-it-takes mode all the time.
Most writers are. It’s always been a little bit like that. But it’s even more of a precarious world now.
Speaking of a precarious world, there’s a lot in the book about the Dawn Of The Age Of Trump and about how blue-state people were panicking when the election happened. Two years on, do you think those predictions of doom have actually played out?
Everything we thought would happen has definitely happened, if not more. This is where being a Soviet Ashkenazi person helps. You have a sixth sense of when things are going to get really bad. Of when to get out. Now that I have a kid, I’m even more aware.
I guess they could get that bad, but we’re not at that stage yet.
No, not yet.
I know there’s a lot of talk about the media being the enemy of the people, and there’s certainly not a ton of love for writers in the culture right now, but I guess I just don’t feel that weight. Maybe I’m kidding myself.
Talk to people in societies like Russia. Hungary, Poland, those kinds of places. It doesn’t happen overnight. Until it does. It grows and the web expands. Writers aren’t as central to the culture as before so we get a pass for a much longer time, but you never know. I think in the end, if this keeps going the way it’s going, then everyone will be swept up in its violent wake.
Do you really feel that way? What’s that going to look like?
I think we all know what fascism looks like one way or another. Nothing’s off the table, ever. That’s one thing we have to remember. Nothing is ever off the table.
It strikes me that rich people, no matter who they voted for, are going to be just fine.
Many rich people didn’t make it out of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. But for now, yes. Many of the scariest people I met along the way when I was researching the book were Jews who worked in the finance industry. They were spouting horrific racist theories, especially about Arabs. People like that do exist in finance and other high-end professions.
As Jews, we’ve been conditioned to keep an eye out for The Holocaust 2, the rise of the Fourth Reich. So what happens when we’re part of the power structure?
Steven Miller in the White House is supporting the separation of parents and children at the Mexican border. Which, given Jewish history, is the most vile thing that you can think of. He is one of the architects of that policy. So what does that tell you? Either a glaring lack of historical knowledge, or kind of a death cult. Today, Mexicans, tomorrow…there’s no limit. It can grind up whoever it wants.
Speaking of grinding up whoever it wants, I wanted to ask you about the Greyhound. I got the sense that you really took that bus ride.
Yeah. We should all get on the Hound once in a while.
I’ve ridden plenty of Greyhounds in my life. It all felt pretty real. The smells…
You don’t want to sit near the bathroom.
The way the seats don’t work and the lights don’t work, and the driver who fell asleep. And also the neighborhoods where the bus terminals are located…
I always made it a point to stay in those neighborhoods. Staying right next to the bus station. I was in one place in Raleigh where someone had punched their fist through the wall right above the bed. There was no way to pretend it wasn’t real.