Lake Success: A Novel
Random House, 352 pages, $28
Barry Cohen is a hero for our time. The protagonist of Gary Shteyngart’s fourth novel, “Lake Success,” he is master of the universe, or at least of Wall Street, although really, he is waiting for the other shoe to drop. It is 2016, and the United States is hurtling toward the apocalypse of Donald Trump, but Barry has his own concerns. His 3-year-old son, Shiva, is autistic; his portfolios are bleeding money by the millions, and his wife, Seema, has stopped speaking to him. Now, it is 3:20 a.m. and he has just “staggered into the Port Authority Bus Terminal… visibly drunk and bleeding. He has not set foot inside the Port Authority — or, one may assume, any bus terminal — in nearly a quarter of a century.
And yet, Barry is at pains to explain, he is more than a mere capitalist; he has a soul. “It wasn’t that Barry was a philistine,” Shteyngart notes. “He had a minor in writing from Princeton’s excellent writing program. His hedge fund, This Side of Capital, was named after Fitzgerald’s first novel, set among the Gothic quads of his alma mater. He had rented his offices in a new Astor Place monolith overlooking storied, once-bohemian St. Mark’s Place as a way of acknowledging his own brief creative spark.” Fitzgerald, St. Mark’s Place, a hedge fund named after a novel — all the elements are in place for Barry’s midlife crisis, which is in full bloom as “Lake Success” begins. This being a Shteyngart novel, however, nothing is that simple. Or, more accurately perhaps, it is, but it is also something else.
This is because Shteyngart is a satirist, which means that, in a sense, he is setting up Barry, nudging us about the character and his foibles, tracing links between his cluelessness, his consumption and the excesses of our new gilded age. At the same time, he is a humanist, and as such after more than easy targets: He wants to explore how Barry got this way. Hence the novel’s title, which refers not to financial success but to a small town, near Great Neck, New York, on Long Island, with which he was obsessed as a child. “I just really liked the name,” Barry tells a 9-year-old named Jonah, the son of his college girlfriend, Layla. “I wanted to be successful.… Lake Success had this shopping center and all the houses had these awesome backyards you could put a pool in. My dad cleaned pools, but we didn’t have one.” Everything that has since happened to Barry has its roots in that youthful longing and dislocation, that sense of standing irrevocably apart.
Shteyngart is working a broad territory here and he knows it; this, too, is part of satire’s point. Barry is at the Port Authority, after all, because in the face of his collapsing life, he wants to rediscover his authentic core. His idea? To take the Greyhound bus to Richmond, reconnect with Layla and, in so doing, rediscover himself. He jettisons his phone and credit cards. He buys crack on the streets of Baltimore. He meets a young woman on the bus and has fumbling, almost adolescent sex with her. When he learns that Layla is now in El Paso, Texas, he adjusts his destination. His part of the book becomes a kind of “On the Road” gone small. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Seema is moving on without him, having an affair herself, working to connect with their child. The novel is constructed as two interlocking narratives to trace the couple’s not quite parallel development: Barry’s toward some sort of self-expression, and Seema’s toward some sort of self-control. “You go around and you do things and you don’t know why you do them,” Layla tells him. “And that’s the story of your gender writ large.” She’s not wrong, and this becomes a key component of the novel, which manages to make us care for Barry even as we judge him: a man-child for whom responsibility is a two-sided and unwieldy coin.
What makes this work is that Barry is more feckless than he is malicious, unable to see past his own point of view. He assumes that everyone in his life (Layla, Seema, his own son) will wait for him, or want the same outcomes he does. It is perhaps a measure of our own gullibility (or humanity) that we root for him, at times in spite of ourselves. What we recognize in him is a slice of our own damaged humanity, not narcissism so much as inflated self-worth. The easy move would be for Shteyngart to mock him, to portray him in two dimensions, as a buffoon. Certainly, his fantasy — to hit the road and experience the real world — is as shopworn as they come. What does Barry know about the real world? He can afford to spend $7.2 million on a watch. “This was his money,” Shteyngart reminds us, although instantly he qualifies, “And, if you thought about it, his son’s money, too.”
And there we have it, the key to “Lake Success,” the beating heart at the center of the book. Barry is lost, in part, because he cannot take Shiva on his own terms, cannot accept him for who he is. In many ways, this is what drives him to the road in the first place; the novel’s precipitating event is a fight with Seema that grows out of his expectations for the child. All the way across the country he seeks surrogates: Jonah, for one, with whom he forms a real connection, although as is true of all his relationships, it is one he ultimately disregards. “[H]e could not process his own abandonment of his son,” Shteyngart writes in the closing pages of the novel, and the lack of closure, of resolution, is real and tragic. This is a loss, a dereliction, that would “reverberate inside Barry for as long as he lived.”
Still, the measure of the book is that it ends with hope, despite (or because of) everything. Shteyngart makes this explicit by setting the novel in something close to real time, interweaving details of the 2016 election, the fear and upheaval it provoked, into the very marrow of the narrative. That’s a risky choice, and it doesn’t always work — especially now, when the news cycle has shortened and it feels as if President Trump has always been with us. But this, too, is part of the point. What Shteyngart is saying is that private events take place against the backdrop of public events, that we live in two worlds at once: the inner and the outer. Certainly, Barry is an avatar of this bifurcation, which roots him to his moment in all sorts of ways. He texts Seema, in all caps: “We’ll get through this. We have the means and we have each other.” That’s Barry to a T, reading this most political of catastrophes through the most personal of filters. The secret message of this novel is that he is wrong, but he is also right.
David L. Ulin is the author or editor of 10 books, including “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms With Los Angeles.” He is the former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times.