Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, “Lake Success,” takes place against the backdrop of the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, in a country that rewards the rich and makes excuses for their behavior, often at the expense of the vulnerable.
It begins with the ultimate incongruity: a multibillion-dollar hedge-fund manager stumbling drunk through the warren of Port Authority at 3 a.m.
Shteyngart’s gift for such contrasts (he memorably described the main character of his debut novel as a cross between P.T. Barnum and Vladimir Lenin) combined with his astute eye for the nuances of American life and a poignant sense of humor make him an ideal author to tackle the onset of the Trump era, when it often felt as if Americans occupied two antithetical realities.
The hedge-fund manager is Barry Cohen, who is fleeing the SEC and his family, including a young son diagnosed with autism. Barry embarks on a Job-like bus trip across the South, shedding or losing everything he has.
Back home his wife, Seema, tries to adjust her life to their son’s needs. Her struggles are as tender and selfless as Barry’s are tragicomic and self-inflicted.
Barry is slow to grow, wallowing in his midlife male fantasies, one involving a gorgeous young black woman and another his former college girlfriend. Shteyngart eventually turns this trope on its head in a hilarious, yet somehow incredibly moving scene outside Phoenix.
Toward the end, Barry finds his path, but “Lake Success” loses its way a bit, devolving into watch-geek fantasy (Shteyngart wrote a brilliant piece for The New Yorker about how this passion helped him cope with 2016) and ultimately an undeserving fairy-tale redemption.
But journeys aren’t only about the destination, and this one is unquestionably worth the ride.