Barry Cohen, the glad-handing protagonist of “Lake Success,” repels our sympathy even while laying claim to it. Barry is a 40-something hedge-fund manager who lives high in the clouds of his own narcissism. He sips $20,000-a-glass whiskey and imagines that his palatial Manhattan existence is well deserved. The very incarnation of white male privilege, Barry is the “friendliest dude,” made all the more exasperating by his misimpression that he’s a man of deep moral wisdom and empathy, despite the vampiric nature of his work.
Of course, such Masters of the Universe have been well satirized many times before. As F. Scott Fitzgerald knew, we mere mortals crave that literary elixir concocted from two parts envy and one part contempt. Shteyngart’s take on the solid-gold shenanigans of Manhattan’s elite includes a full catalogue of products and services you can’t afford — or didn’t even know existed — but the gawking is always laced with wit. “Like your first ankle monitor bracelet or your fourth divorce,” he writes, “the occasional break with reality was an important part of any hedge-fund titan’s biography.”
“Lake Success” opens at the inflection point of Barry’s stratospheric career. He’s lost nearly a billion dollars, and the SEC is close to indicting him for insider trading, but he’s still cocooned in optimism. What’s harder for Barry to ignore is the fact that his wife finds him intolerable, and his son has been diagnosed on the severe end of the autism spectrum. Suddenly, Barry’s perfectly curated life feels imperiled.
Drunk on a fantasy of self-reliance so thick that it obscures his own cowardice, he decides to head off across America on a Greyhound bus — without his cellphone or credit cards, just a suitcase of expensive watches. His plan, so far as he has one, is to track down an old college girlfriend in El Paso and begin his life again.
Barry may think he’s roaming across America, but Shteyngart suggests that he’s also traversing a particular strain of American literature. As Barry lights out for the territory, he imagines that he’s reenacting Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” or confronting the world like Hemingway or even reinventing himself like Jay Gatsby. If he were better read, he’d recognize that he’s just running away from his wife and son like Harry Angstrom in “Rabbit, Run.”
As a student at Princeton, Barry dabbled in English literature and still fancies himself something of a writer. Indeed, he tells young stock traders in his office, “If you want to be a hedge-fund manager, you have to be a storyteller first and last,” but he seems unconcerned about the demarcations between storytelling, delusion and fraud. (With no apparent irony, he calls his hedge fund “This Side of Capital” after the Fitzgerald novel.) Shteyngart, who teaches at Columbia, offers a flashback to Barry’s writing workshop that reveals the fantastical nostalgia of a certain breed of American man. These scholar-athletes submit essentially the same story: “Their heroes were all complicated bankers in the first throes of middle age, stumbling upon a lost girlfriend, reconsidering their lives, wishing they had held on to their college loves.” When the professor gently mocks the shallowness of these self-absorbed, money-based tales, all Barry wants to know is: “Which story was the best?”
There’s something uncanny about Shteyngart’s ability to inhabit this man’s boundless confidence, his neediness, his juvenile tendency to fall in love and imagine everyone as a life-changing friend. Barry’s affection is a strange species of egoism that reduces others to mere objects of his generosity. For instance, a few minutes after chatting with a young black man on a bus that smells like urine, Barry considers adopting him. Perhaps, he thinks, he should start a foundation “that would help urban youth buy their first mechanical watch and learn to care for it.”
There’s a risk to focusing on this errant character as he condescends to ordinary folks across America. A few hundred pages of watching Shteyngart skewer Barry for his cluelessness could grow tedious, but “Lake Success” has a wider vision and deeper sympathies. For one thing, the story takes place during the 2016 presidential election as Donald Trump emerges from the muck of America’s latent racism and anti-intellectualism. Struggle as he might, Barry has trouble ignoring the growing contradictions between his benevolent ideals and his conservative politics.
The most remarkable passages of “Lake Success” take place when the novel shifts back to Manhattan where Barry’s wife, Seema, struggles to raise their son who has autism. Naturally, unlimited wealth eases some of the attendant challenges; Seema can afford to convene a small army of therapists to plan her son’s first play date. But Shteyngart seems to have somehow gained entrance into a world even more secretive than the realm of high finance. For all its droll sendup of the moneyed class, “Lake Success” is one of the most heartbreaking novels I’ve read about raising a child with special needs, and as the father of a daughter with cerebral palsy, I’ve read many of them. In Seema’s ferocious love and Barry’s flight reflex, I recognize the storm of conflicting emotions that parents like me endure — from our poisonous sense of failure to our shameful resentment of parents with typical children. Shteyngart captures all that just right, along with the tender moments, the tiny breakthroughs, the miraculous flashes of connection that make such a life endurable.
If Barry eventually receives a gentler punishment than he would seem to deserve, that may be a reflection of Shteyngart’s essentially forgiving nature. But it’s also a mark of a novel in which comedy and pathos are exquisitely balanced.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
On Oct. 9, Gary Shteyngart will be Sixth & I Synagogue, 600 I St. NW, Washington. sixthandi.org.
By Gary Shteyngart
Random House. 352 pp. $28