“I've always wanted to travel the country by Greyhound bus,” says Gary Shteyngart, the New York Times bestselling author about his latest book, "Lake Success" (Penguin Random House 2018; $28), which tells the story of Barry Cohen, a hedge fund millionaire who, unable to deal with all the issues affecting his life, jumps on a bus to find his college girlfriend.
“I know, I'm nuts. But I thought it would be a very visceral way to see the country at a difficult time in its history,” Shteyngart said.
“And it sure was. As for the hedge fund part, I guess I realized there were so few people left in New York who weren't connected to finance one way or another. Everyone else had been priced out.”
You might think that the fictional Cohen, a man worth millions who is married to a beautiful, exotic and intelligent wife, has, if not it all, at least a lot more than most of us. But beneath the surface, it’s all breaking into pieces for Cohen, a self-made man who overcame the intense insecurities he had as a boy. His only child is severely autistic, his wife is drifting away, having fallen in love with a married neighbor, and the Feds are opening an investigation into how his hedge fund lost a billion dollars or so.
Chucking it all including his Black Amex card, cell phone and access to his millions, Cohen has only a couple hundred dollars and his expensive watch collection, which emotionally means more to him at the time he starts his journey than anything else in his life.
Shteyngart was able to nail down the personalities of his characters by immersing himself in their world.
“I spent three years hanging out with hedge fund people and their spouses and sometimes children,” he said.
“A strange alternate reality began to take shape in my mind. I started jotting down the little tics and conversations, but mostly the fact that the real world of the 99.9 percent was no longer available to them. They had moated themselves into an almost feudal level. In fact, large parts of Manhattan started to seem like a series of gated communities.”
There’s a parallel to Shteyngart and Barry’s upbringing. Both grew up poor and saw Wall Street as a way to make up for the huge amounts of insecurity they felt.
“In our country, being poor is almost considered a moral failing, though often to get rich requires a true moral failing,” he said.
Unlike Barry, Shtenyngart, who immigrated with his parents from Leningrad at age 7, turned to writing dark comedic novels such as "Super Sad True Love Story" (winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize) and "The Russian Debutante’s Handbook" (winner of the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction).
It’s humor, based in part on his parents, who he says have a satirical approach to reality honed in the Soviet Union, where laughter was the only defense against a stupid system.
“Being an immigrant is also a nice way to observe a society, because you have to learn it from scratch,” he said.