A self-made Wall Street millionaire, baffled by the implosion of his seemingly perfect life, takes a cross-country bus trip in search of his college sweetheart and the ideals of his youth. By the best-selling author of Super Sad True Love Story.
Gary Shteyngart is the New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Little Failure (a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist) and the novels Super Sad True Love Story (winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize), Absurdistan, and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (winner of the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction). His books regularly appear on best-of lists around the world and have been published in thirty countries.
*Starred Review* Shteyngart's acidly prescient novel Super Sad True Love Story (2010) looked to the near-future. This rambunctious tale of a morally challenged, on-the-run New York hedge-fund manager takes place during the incendiary 2016 presidential campaign. A deft satirist, Shteyngart revels in describing Barry Cohen's ludicrously elite environs and calculated strategies based on his belief that a hedge-fund manager must "be a storyteller first and last." Barry's anxious striving stems from his unhappy adolescence in Queens, while a vestige of his abandoned literary dreams is found in the name of his fund, This Side of Capital, a cockeyed tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Barry is proud of his gorgeous, smart, younger wife, Seema, a former lawyer and the daughter of Tamil immigrants from India, as though she was a rare, priceless work of art, and he had hoped to multiply his investment with children. After IVF procedures, their son, Shiva, was born; now three, he has severe autism. Barry worships perfection; his one true passion is collecting vintage luxury watches, taking comfort in their elegance, heft, and orderliness. He cannot cope with Shiva's extreme sensitivity, and, after a terrible commotion, he flees with a suitcase full of absurdly expensive timepieces and a hazy idea about finding his college girlfriend. Abandoning his bubble of privilege and tossing out his cellphone and credit cards, he travels the country on Greyhound buses. Barry is absurdly impractical, deeply deluded, and epically selfish, but he is also omnivorously observant, gutsy, and very funny. His grimy, picaresque journey, presented with a warmhearted drollery reminiscent of that of Stanley Elkin, takes him through the South, across the Texas borderland, and on to California. Barry finds himself in intimate contact with a diverse array of characters, from the down-and-out to the stubbornly hopeful-cash-poor travelers who inspire fear, lust, humility, and a desire to do good. Which is ironic, given the slowly revealed and dismaying financial and legal trouble our hero is in. Meanwhile, Seema, who unlike her volatile, rudderless husband, is in ferocious control of herself, diligently oversees her son's team of caregivers, and conducts a desultory affair with the novel's least convincing character, a writer who serves primarily as a vehicle for Shteyngart's anemic mockery of literary and academic pandering. Shteyngart's storytelling is otherwise electric in its suspense and mordant hilarity; his characters are intriguingly and affectingly complex, and, while the action never stops, he still digs deeply into our perceptions of self and family, lies and truth, ambition and success, greed and generosity, love and betrayal, and, most touchingly, what we deem normal and how we respond to differences. Lake Success is a big, busy, amusing, needling, and outraging novel, one to revel in and argue with, a nervy and chewy choice for book discussions. And the many loaded topics it boldly addresses connect it to an array of other novels. Tom Wolfe's indelible attack on avarice and posturing, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), comes to mind first, poignantly enough in the wake of Wolfe's recent death. Financial analyst and corporate attorney turned novelist Cristina Alger offers a lighter, more contemporary take on Wall Street hubris in Little Darlings (2012) and The Banker's Wife (2018). Barry's escape from New York and subsequent adventures resembles a plotline in Sue Halpern's Summer Hours at the Robbers Library (2018) and key aspects of Anne Tyler's Clock Dance (2018). The raucous political milieu, dubious financial machinations, a family's fate, ties to India, and autism are also elements in Salman Rushdie's much grander saga, The Golden House (2017). Readers taken with Shteyngart's sensitive portrayal of Shiva may also appreciate young characters with autism in Ginny Moon, by Benjamin Ludwig (2017); Harmony, by Carolyn Parkhurst (2016); and Language Arts, by Stephanie Kallos (2015). Barry "didn't know how to harvest love out of sorrow." Will he learn? Will Seema find love? What will become of Shiva? For all his caustic critique and propulsive plotting, Shteyngart is a writer of empathic imagination, ultimately steering this bristling, provocative, sharply comedic, yet richly compassionate novel toward enlightenment and redemption. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
A hedge fund manager on the skids takes a cross-country Greyhound bus trip to reconnect with his college girlfriend, leaving his wife to deal with their autistic 3-year-old. "Barry Cohen, a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management, staggered into the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He was visibly drunk and bleeding. There was a clean slice above his left brow where the nanny's fingernail had gouged him and, from his wife, a teardrop scratch below his eye." Shteyngart (Little Failure, 2014, etc.) gleefully sends Barry, on the run from troubles at work as well as his inability to face up to his son's recent diagnosis, on an odyssey that the author himself made on a Greyhound bus during the lead-up to the 2016 election, thus joining Salman Rushdie, Olivia Laing, Curtis Sittenfeld, and others with recent works set in the dawn of the Trump era. Barry is, in some ways, a bit of a Trump himself: He's from Queens, has a serious inferiority/superiority complex, has achieve d his success through means other than actual financial genius. Barry, however, is a likable naif whose first stop is Baltimore, where he uses the "friend moves" he developed in middle school to bond with a crack dealer named Javon. He leaves Baltimore with a rock in his pocket and the dream of establishing an Urban Watch Fund, where he would share with underprivileged kids his obsession with Rolexes and Patek Phillipes as a means to self-betterment. In fact, Barry has left New York with not a single change of clothes, only a carry-on suitcase full of absurdly valuable watches. And now there's that crack rock. Off he goes to Richmond, Atlanta, Jackson, El Paso, Ciudad Juarez, Phoenix, and La Jolla, the home of an ex he's been out of touch with for years. Alternating chapters visit his wife, Seema, the daughter of Indian immigrants, who's back in New York with their silent son, Shiva, and his nanny, conducting an affair with a downstairs neighbor, a successful Guatemalan writ e r named Luis Goodman (whose biographical overlap with the real writer Francisco Goldman has all the markings of an inside joke). As good as anything we've seen from this author: smart, relevant, fundamentally warm-hearted, hilarious of course, and it has a great ending. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Barry Cohen, a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management, staggered into the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He was visibly drunk and bleeding. There was a clean slice above his left brow where the nanny’s fingernail had gouged him and, from his wife, a teardrop scratch below his eye. It was 3:20 a.m.
The last time he had been to the Port Authority was twenty-four years ago. He had gone on a bus trip to Richmond, Virginia, to see his college girlfriend. That youthful bus ride unspooled in his mind whenever the S&P was crushing him or whenever he would discover a new and terrible fact about his son’s condition. When Barry closed his eyes, he could picture the sweep of the highway, his country calling out to him from both sides of the road. He could feel himself sitting on a hard wooden bench at some roadside shack. A thick woman with a crablike walk and many stories to tell would bring him a plate of vinegary beans and pulled pork. They would talk as equals about where their lives went wrong, and she would waive the price of the meal, and he would pay for it anyway. And she would say, Thank you, Barry, because despite the vast difference in their assets under management, they would already be on a first-name basis.
He stumbled over to the line of policemen and policewomen guarding the nighttime barricades meant to shepherd travelers from the streets to the gates. “Where are the buses?” he said. “I want to get out of here.”
To the cops he looked like just another New Yorker. A bleeding man; roughed-up, sweat-clumped nighttime hair; a Patagonia vest over his Vineyard Vines shirt with the single word citi. He was tall and had a wide swimmer’s build, his thick shoulders tapering to two feminine wrists, a liability at any point in history, but never more so than during the year 2016, at the start of the First Summer of Trump. He was breathing heavily after having dragged a carry-on rollerboard from his apartment on Madison Square Park, a total of twenty blocks. The night was warm and windy, a perfect Manhattan I-don’t-want-to-die kind of night, and with each block he walked he had felt more assured of what he was about to do to his marriage.
“Downstairs,” one of the cops said.
Barry did as he was told, the little rollerboard twisting behind him. The air here was different. He could say with certainty that he had not in recent memory, or any memory, really, breathed air of this quality. The easy way to describe it would be to say that it smelled like a foot. But whose foot? The man was not in the habit of smelling feet, except perhaps in the locker room at Equinox where his own feet smelled of chlorine, because he swam. His wife’s feet, he was sure, smelled of honeysuckle like the rest of her, but he was not going to think of her now.
There was a Greyhound counter, but its gate was shuttered and there was no note about when it would reopen. “Socialism,” Barry said aloud, even though he knew that Greyhound Lines was a Dallas-based subsidiary of the Scottish company FirstGroup, and not a service offered by our government. He had drunk twenty thousand dollars’ worth of Karuizawa whiskey that night. He could make mistakes.
There was a Hudson newsstand and Barry headed for the old South Asian man behind the counter. “Where are the buses?” he said.
“Downstairs,” the old man answered.
“I am downstairs.”
The old Indian shrugged. He was watching Barry and his bleeding face with his hooded eyes as if he wanted in on his ruination. Barry hated him. He could hate him because his wife was Indian.
“Do you have WatchTime magazine?”
“Anything about watches?”
There were no further interactions to be had here. He took another look around. The socialist Greyhound counter was still shuttered. Un-fucking-believable. There was a sign that read to gates 1–78. So maybe that’s where the buses were. The escalator leading downstairs was broken and yet another Indian wearing a Hudson News vest sat on the top steps holding his head in his hands. He appeared to be weeping. One of Barry’s top traders was a guy named Akash Singh, but he was a killer on the floor.
He dragged his rollerboard down the broken escalator, worried about the watches inside. The automatic ones were safe within their Swiss Kubik watch winders, but the manually wound ones should not be exposed to such shocks, especially the Universal Genève Tri-Compax, which was from the early 1940s and in frail health. Barry normally couldn’t go on a trip without at least three watches to keep him company, each was an old and rare friend, but he would need no fewer than half-a-dozen timepieces to complete this journey. He picked up his luggage, but lifting it made him want to throw up. He sat down on one of the escalator steps and considered the crying Indian man sitting above him. He would get through this. He could get through anything after what he had been through this year. His wife didn’t love him. Didn’t desire him. And although he wanted her, he wasn’t sure he loved her either. He thought of that long-ago trip to Richmond, Virginia, to see his college girlfriend, Layla, and the wind in his hair as the bus whipped into the Lincoln Tunnel and then into New Jersey. Was the wind really in his hair? Did bus windows open back then? Yes, they must have. Would they open now? Probably not. But he could imagine the wind in his hair, the little that was left, because unlike what his wife had said, he had an imagination. He got up and holding his rollerboard with the watches tight to his chest walked down the remaining steps.
It was not good here. It was not good at all. It smelled like someone had eaten a fish sandwich. There were people sitting on benches, sitting on their luggage, sitting on the brown linoleum floor. There were gates with numbers and destinations, like at an airport, and outside the gates the buses all waited in the stink and gloom. That was the thing. You could go anywhere within our country. The open road! Barry had taken an Acela to Boston once on a dare with Joey Goldblatt of Icarus Capital Management, the train was faster and nicer, but this was the open road, and once you got on the open road the whole country would rush out to say hello and refill your ice tea. You would become a traveler and no one could tell you you had no imagination or no soul or whatever his wife had said to insult him in front of the Guatemalan writer and his Hong Kong doctor wife whose apartment he had left in ignominy just a few hours ago in the whiskey-heat of the night. To be demeaned in front of others, to be cut down in front of one’s lessers, he had seen this before with his hedgie friends’ wives, and it had always been the first step to divorce. In his field, pride was nonnegotiable.
Barry looked at the destinations. Washington Express. Cleveland Express. Casino Express. Everything was an express. Then he found what he was looking for. A gate that read richmond, va. It was the only bus that was not an express. Fine. He would go to Richmond. In the last two months, since his son’s diagnosis, he had done some very hot and heavy Facebook snooping and it turned out that Layla was in El Paso, Texas, of all places. But Richmond was a start. Richmond was about memories. Her parents might still be there. Wouldn’t that be something, if he just showed up. Not on his NetJets account, but on a Greyhound?
There was something he remembered from that long-ago bus trip to see Layla. The way the departing Greyhound had turned and turned again through the mysterious dark passages of the Port Authority, but then had emerged onto this golden overpass, beneath which the city glowed in all its art deco metalwork, enticing and beckoning. Barry had thought of that leave-taking, that exit ramp into the sky, with increasing frequency over the last three years, whenever the soul-dismembering red numbers crept onto his Bloomberg terminal, next to which he kept a large framed photo of his son, Shiva, in all his dark-eyed beauty; Shiva, sullenly holding a baby doll named Maurice but never looking at it. Beneath the frame Barry had the words i love you, rabbit put in in gaudy gilded letters, just to remind himself that he did, more than anything.
A young black man in a green vest stood before the Richmond gate. It was hard to tell what he was doing there, but he had a green vest on. “I want to buy a ticket,” Barry said to him.
“Damn,” the man said. “What happened to your face?”
This was the first time all night anyone had noticed his pain. “My wife hit me,” Barry said. “And my son’s nanny.”
“Uh-huh.” The man had a string of pimples across his face.
“I want to go to Richmond.”
“Uh-huh,” the man in the green vest said.
“I don’t have a ticket.”
“You go upstairs to the ticket counter.”
“Yeah, but they open it eventually.”
“Where’s the restroom?”
“There’s one on the third floor, but I gotta key in the elevator to let you up.”
“I better go get my ticket first.”
“Bus ain’t going nowhere. I might as well key in the elevator and let you up. Face all busted.”
It was time to close the deal just as if this man were a potential investor. “I’m Barry Cohen. It’s really nice to meet you.”
“I’m Wayne. You sure you don’t want the bathroom?”
“I’m going to get my ticket first, Wayne. You’re a real stand-up guy. Wish I had someone like you working on my team.”
“You work at Citibank?” Wayne had noticed his Citi vest.
“Then I got to question your taste in apparel there,” Wayne said. He smiled and Barry smiled back at him. His first smile of the night.
Barry walked back up the escalator with his rollerboard. The man in the Hudson News vest had stopped crying and was now looking blankly down the broken escalator steps with puffy eyes. The Richmond bus was leaving in twenty minutes, but the shutter was still drawn against the ticket booths. A woman wearing purple mesh bunny ears and a wifebeater that had paris rhinestoned across the front of it was holding on to the links of the shutter, looking at the empty ticket counters the way a navy wife might look at a ship pulling out to sea.
“I got to get out of here,” Barry said to her.
The woman appraised his face. She was thirty or fifty, it was hard to tell, and Barry imagined every second of her life had been painful. “No shit,” she said.
“Why won’t they open it?”
“There’s a ticket counter upstairs, but the guy said it was closed because of some technics difficulty.”
“That’s what he said.”
“This isn’t right. My bus leaves in twenty minutes.”
“Tell me about it.”
“This isn’t right,” Barry repeated.
“What you want me to do?” the woman said. One of her mesh bunny ears drooped over her face. Her bottom teeth seemed to be where her top teeth should be and she had no bottom teeth. She was white. Just an hour into his journey, Barry was starting to get something about the Trump phenomenon. Like an idiot, he had thrown 1.7 million, almost two bucks, after Marco Rubio. What choice did he have? He had sat through a five-hour dinner with Ted Cruz in a private room at the Gramercy Tavern after which Joey Goldblatt had turned to him and whispered, “He’s a psychopath.” So they all bet their millions on Rubio. They should have met this woman first. There was nothing Rubio could do for her.
He couldn’t get on the bus without a ticket. But the ticket counter was not open. He fingered his phone.
The point of this trip was that it would just be him out in the world solving his own problems, just like the woman with the bunny ears, just like his nineteen-year-old Princeton sophomore self. Where did he lose that nineteen-year-old? The one who had been so ready for love and so ready for heartbreak, not the kind of heartbreak his son, Shiva, had brought him, but the kind that healed.
The woman in the mesh ears was talking to a trans woman eating a bag of Lay’s with a lot of emphasis. Barry was standing a foot away from them, but he was being completely ignored.
He called Sandy on her emergency number. It was three-thirty in the morning, but of course she would answer, and it would take no more than two seconds for her to get the sleep out of her voice. Sandy had worked for Pataki in the same capacity when he was governor, that’s how good she was. He pictured her lying next to her big-boned Dominican partner ass to ass. Barry was a Republican, but he had been long gay marriage since third quarter 2014. He couldn’t shut up about gay marriage. He had actually once given Sandy this huge spiel about how she and whatever-her-name-was should get married, because the problem with our country was—
“What’s wrong?” Sandy said.
“I need you to book a Greyhound bus to Richmond, Virginia, now.”
“Observation,” Sandy said. “You don’t sound so hot.” She said a bunch of other things in quick succession. She wanted to know if there was anything up from a legal perspective, which they shouldn’t talk about on the phone, but she would Uber over right away, just hold tight. Whatever this was about, the morning would bring “resolution.” She mentioned “optics.” Did he know what it was like on a Greyhound? If he absolutely had to go, there was NetJets out of Teterboro. He could be “wheels up” in two hours. There were direct JetBlue, Delta, and United flights to Richmond. There was Acela plus a regional train. Why was he doing this? Her competency was beautiful. Sandy was the only woman at his firm, other than the hotties in investor relations. They had employed a tart-tongued Oxford ex-biologist who ran risk management, another lesbian who had once actually called him “retarded” to his face, but after three disaster-filled years, their assets down by more than half, plus that other thing, she had pivoted to a start-up in the Valley.