Gary Shteyngart is lying in a London hotel staring at his foot. “If I ever said, O.K., I’m set for life, then everything would fall apart,” the author is saying over the phone. “I’d be like, Well, I’m going to write a book about my left toe and how it’s such a shapely left toe.”
He gets distracted by an unfamiliar spot—and quickly looks up toe cancer online. He resolves to have a doctor check it out. Later, he’ll explain, “I’m an anxious everything.”
Shteyngart, one of America’s keenest satirists, is an expert examiner of haunting imperfections. His new novel, Lake Success—his first in eight years, since the best seller Super Sad True Love Story—exposes and tickles the brittle egos of über-wealthy Americans in 2016, which he calls “possibly the worst year in American history since the Civil War.”
Dismayed by an insult about his lack of imagination, the book’s central character Barry Cohen—a Marco Rubio–supporting Republican hedge-fund manager in Manhattan—abandons his phone, his millions, his wife and his toddler to travel across America, hoping that it will free and inspire him.
He takes a series of long-distance Greyhound bus trips to refashion his life, incited by fantasies from his past. Barry refuses to believe the present, particularly his only son’s nonverbal autism diagnosis, which threatens his vision of the ultimate status marker: three mirthful kids, each with his or her own bathroom sink.
In Shteyngart’s 2014 memoir, Little Failure, titled after his mother’s nickname for him, he calls his family a “tribe of wounded narcissists.” The description also applies to many of the people in Lake Success. While Barry absconds, his wife Seema, a Hillary Clinton supporter, finds comfort in watching news about Donald Trump in the final months of the campaign. “No matter what happens personally,” she says, “there’s this much greater disaster taking place.”
For research, Shteyngart interviewed and partied till 4 a.m. with Wall Street types and, in the summer of 2016, embarked on his own Greyhound road trip. He discovered that the educated American middle class was stuck in “a sh-t sandwich.” In the upper echelons, he heard talk of eugenics—both sincerely and as an affectation. On the buses, he says, “as happens in the book, there’d be white supremacists talking about crucifying Muslims and Jews.” While the author also witnessed striking moments of communion on his bus tour, he grew eager to end the work of emulating his characters. “These aren’t fun lives,” he says.
As someone who fled hardship and a history of persecution with his Jewish family from Leningrad to Queens in 1979, after many relatives had been killed, Shteyngart fears a creeping totalitarianism in America today. He brings up his 4-year-old son. “I want him to love this country. But my wife isn’t Caucasian, so he may be growing up in a country where he’s told that he’s less-than,” he says. “What happens then? Well, I think my parents did one thing really right—they left.”
Talk of tribalism is briefly interrupted when Shteyngart’s room service arrives. His room is sprawling; “the bathtub is as big as my apartment in the city,” he says. The lampooner of the ways of the wealthy is experiencing their privileges—and is wearing a rare watch once owned by an adviser to Richard Nixon on the nation’s space program.
He has a slight allergy to refinement, though. “When my life vaguely intersects with those of the hedge-fund subjects that I’ve been covering, I’m like, How the hell did this happen, you know?” he says. It only adds to the unsettling peculiarity of the times. “We live in a 24/7 satire now,” he says. And with him in this hotel and this President in the White House, he can only laugh so much. “There’s no funny way out of this.”