I was in the mood for a new “Great American Novel” and although Lake Success is now two years old, it filled the bill, at least in its intent. If you define that “dream” as being just that, an apparition that exists only in the American psyche, mostly a rags-to-riches delusion, this novel is that. And as NYC is its broad canvas, it personally resonates, particularly as one of our publishing offices was in the Metro Life Building at Madison Square, the vicinity in which the protagonist has his multi-million dollar condo, with his wife Seema, a gorgeous Indian-American, and their autistic son, three year old, Shiva.
Gary Shteyngart’s tale is a Bildungsroman of sorts, tracing Barry Cohen’s success and failure and redemption as a NYC hedge fund manager, having pushed the envelope a bit too far in his quest for the golden ring. His marriage and his business are disintegrating and so Barry takes a physical and spiritual journey in the America of Trump’s rise to power. Poor Barry, he impulsively flees his tower in la la land with the illusion that he can be reunited with his ex-girlfriend from college. But traveling by Greyhound bus is not exactly the homey experience he might have fantasized about in It Happened One Night, where down to earth country people traveled and entertained each other with a sense of camaraderie. Barry interacts with today’s travelers from the lower rung of a fractured society. Perhaps he was thinking of a journey more along the lines of a Simon and Garfunkel song, They've all come to look for America, even imagining he could write the next On The Road.
His childhood dream was to lift himself out of Little Neck, LI and disassociate himself from being the son of a pool maintenance man, using his ability to think like a programmer of a Commodore computer to fill in responses when his peers questioned what he did over the weekend, such as having gone to the Lake Success mall. Obviously, Barry is a genius, but much of it is of a savant nature, being able to think as a programmer, and that ability feeding his hedge fund success and his passion for collecting and knowing the nuances of the world’s most expensive watches. In fact, his road trip is made with little cash but with a stash of watches in a rolleraboard. He is a “Watch Idiot Savant.”
Still, it is on the bus trip, running away from his hedge fund world and Park Avenue life, with the perfect wife but with a damaged child to win back his college sweetheart, that he develops the thought of finding the son he thinks he’ll never have, even having fantasies of bringing a clever young inner city drug dealer, Javon, under his wing as a surrogate son. It is a crossroads in the novel for Barry: So this was America. A cruel place where a man could be thrown off the street because of the color of his skin, the cut of his watch. It was disgraceful. He didn’t want any part of it. Maybe it wasn’t too late to turn back. He could picture it all. His office. Seema’s fine body, an endless stream of cacchiatos and uni rolls. A Manhattan life for a Manhattan man. He could rejoin the winner’s circle. But he continues on.
Ultimately, he latches on to the son (Jonah) of his ex-girlfriend, Layla, who reluctantly takes him in but none of his goals are realistic for a possible relationship. Jonah is a different story. He has his own obsession, cartography. It is here that Barry can express his reverie for his own childhood and the significance of the place, Lake Success. Jonah says: "I don't have any shared interests with my peers." Barry laughed. … "I didn't either," he said. "You know what's right above Lake Success? Great Neck and Port Washington. One day when you're in high school you'll read a book called The Great Gatsby. There are these towns in the book called East Egg and West Egg, and that's them." …."That book The Great Gatsby is about a man who wanted to improve himself. And when I was your age I wanted to improve myself, too. So each day I'd practice my 'friend moves.' Like, what are ten things kids in school can ask me, and what are ten things I can say back? It's like drawing a map or knowing all the train systems in the world. Except instead of facts, you have to memorize what they call small talk. People who aren't smart like us, they love small talk. 'Did you hear about this?' 'Oh, what about that?' 'So-and-so got hurt in gym class.' 'That's cool.' So I worked my friend moves real hard, and then by the time I graduated from college, I was the friendliest guy in my profession. And it made me hundreds of millions of dollars."
His fascination with Fitzgerald (and his Alma Mater, Princeton) is highlighted in the names of his hedge funds, the first failed one being “This Side of Capital.” Then another one , “Last Tycoon Capital” and ultimately, “Balance Wheel Capital,” ‘a reference to “the spinning part of a watch movement.” In a sense, that is the conundrum of being Barry, a computer like mind who has a love of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Shteyngart’s writing sometimes becomes as lyrical as Fitzgerald and is frequently hilarious but melancholy dealing with the reality of what America has become.
The climax of the novel is his trip to Juarez, Mexico (ironically where I got a divorce more than 50 years ago) with Lalya and her friends where he becomes completely disoriented, nearly losing himself there to eternity, but after finding his way back Lalya kicks him out, back on the road, and ultimately to face the music of his financial shenanigans.
Meanwhile Seema’s story is juxtaposed to Barry’s, her affair with the downstairs neighbor, a Guatemalan writer, who defines his own work as being basically the same (“American colonialism, crimes against the indigenous, yada yada yada”), her devotion to Shiva, and having to invite her parents back into her life.
Barry’s story runs parallel to his young son’s autism. He is similarly affected by an inability to establish a normal human relationship. Instead he has his watch fetish. And there are parallels in the maturation of each reaching the novel’s redemptive Kumbaya conclusion. All of this is told in a land of such division between the upper 1 percent and the rest of us, and in the dystopian land of Trump. It is compulsive reading, at least for me at this sad moment in time.