Leaving Billions Behind In 'Lake Success'

Sep 8, 2018
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Gary Shteyngart spent a lot of time riding Greyhound buses and hanging out with hedge fund managers to research his new novel, "Lake Success." Barry Cohen, his main character, has lost nearly a billion dollars from his fund, and the feds are on his trail, and his 3-year-old son is diagnosed on the severe end of the autism scale. So Barry Cohen leaves behind his billions, his Amex Black Card, his overwhelmed wife and his ailing child and hits the road with just a few $20 bills in his pocket and his exquisite watch collection. He's in flight from his problems and, like all great road books, maybe in search of himself. Gary Shteyngart, the author of several best-sellers, including "Super Sad True Love Story" and "Absurdistan," joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

GARY SHTEYNGART: Great to be here, thank you.

SIMON: You know, I say this with respect - it's been a while since I enjoyed a novel as much that has such a smug, insufferable and repellent character at the center.

SHTEYNGART: (Laughter) Yeah. Barry is my most - is my greatest anti-hero, I think, you know? He's a - he's sort of Tony Soprano without a gun - you know? - but with a Bloomberg terminal instead of a gun. He's not a nice guy. He leaves his family when his family needs him the most. No, he's really something. And, you know, I wanted to set a challenge for myself. Can I probe him as much as possible? Can I fillet him like a fish and see inside as much as I can so that by the end of the book, you know, redemption isn't what I'm looking for? But I want the reader to understand him. And, through understanding him, I want him - I want the reader to understand how we kind of got to where we are as a country in 2018.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the research part. What's it like to ride the Hound, as you call the Greyhound bus, across...

SHTEYNGART: (Laughter) The Hound.

SIMON: ...The country these days? Yeah.

SHTEYNGART: I was doing a signing yesterday, and somebody said to me, where we're from, we call it The Dog (ph) - so the Dog, the Hound. It was incredible. It was - you know, I got on the Hound in June of 2016 in New York. And I got off the Hound in September in San Diego, Calif. And between those months, those very few months, my whole view of this country had changed almost irrevocably. By the time I got off the Hound in San Diego, I was looking online for, you know, real estate in Montreal. I was like, I've got to get out of here. So you learn so much by leaving New York and LA and San Francisco and all these things. You really - I think if you're a journalist or a writer, it's important to get on a Dog of some kind and gallop your way across the country.

SIMON: What did you learn? What did people tell you?

SHTEYNGART: Well, first of all, people told me that - in so many ways, people told me they were incredibly dissatisfied with their lives. Although, I must say this - that the hedge fund managers that I had spent three or four years with were also very dissatisfied...

SIMON: Yeah.

SHTEYNGART: ...For the most part with their lives. There was no happiness to be found, except in very small doses. But I also learned that a lot of our country is very, very angry. And there was a - you know? So much of "Lake Success" is really just me writing down what I saw on the Hound and in these different cities where I stop. But there was - white supremacists who got onboard in - let's call the state Louisiana - and, you know, began chanting about how they wanted to crucify Muslims and Jews. And so Barry Cohen, the hero of my book, gets off in Shreveport, La., and buys a New Testament coloring book just to prove that he's not Jewish, you know?

And so yeah, it was 2016, the first summer of Trump. These racists were already referencing Breitbart as they were, you know, haranguing the other passengers. And I - it was a shock to me. I'm sure these people felt exactly the same way before Trump. But the advent of this new landscape gave them permission to actually speak at a high volume, and the rest of us just turned away. We couldn't fight back, even though we outnumbered them. And that, to me, was very scary.

SIMON: So why did you wind up having to drag Donald Trump into this novel?

SHTEYNGART: You know, look; it's written in the summer of 2016. When I started out, I thought, well, Trump would be, like, a sideshow, whatever. It's this - you know, it'll be a way to contextualize the precise year in which this book is happening. But, of course, by the end of the book - and the book goes a little bit beyond the election - everything was about Trump. You greet somebody in the street and the conversation will turn to Trump in three seconds. So how do you both contextualize the world within this new universe we live in but, at the same time, give room to parents and children, in this case, a child on the autistic spectrum? How do you create that?

SIMON: I'm curious about this, too, in the novel. At some level, Barry really does love his wife, Seema, and his son, Shiva. He holds Shiva at one point and I think says - what? - keep him from being hurt by my transgressions or something like that. What - so why is he so useless and unavailable to them?

SHTEYNGART: Well, I think he's useless and unavailable to everyone around him. He, like many of the hedge fund people I met - not all of them but so many of them came from lower-middle-class families, usually on the peripheries of things, you know, the peripheries of Naples, Italy or Moscow or New York, you know, somewhere where they were - you know, they weren't the poorest of the poor, but they were - they weren't rich. So, you know, I grew up poor myself in Queens, just like Barry did, in the same neighborhood. And, you know, I was familiar with food stamps and Section 8 housing. And in my world, all I ever wanted to do was break out of there and show people who I was. And the only way I thought I could do that was with money, you know?

But as I spent time with these hedge funders, I realized that, after a certain amount of money - it's not even a large amount of money - happiness just ceases to accrue. Further happiness just ceases to accrue. In fact, in some ways, the opposite happens. The money is - it's too much. You need a chief - a family CFO, a family chief financial officer to manage it. It creates for such a strange dynamic that I almost - you know, I left this project being slightly allergic to money and thinking, God, if only we could resuscitate the middle class, what's left of it, then we could get back to the kind of country we were instead of a country where a portion of us is deathly poor, and the other portion just sucks up money from the rest of us.

SIMON: I gather you became a father while working on this novel.

SHTEYNGART: Yup, yup, yup.

SIMON: Do you think, now that the novel's in your hands, it changed the way you wrote about love, marriage or children?

SHTEYNGART: I think so. I mean, this book - I hope it's funny, but it's still - there's a - it's a less satiric segment to it or less satiric feel to it. There's a feeling of deep, deep worry. I mean, before, look; my books, like "Absurdistan," satirized a country I had left and had no intention of ever living in. This was the former Soviet Union countries. But, now, this is happening to my country. And what makes it even worse is this is a country where I have a little kid, a 4-year-old, who has to live with this for the rest of his life. So it really deepened the stakes of what I was writing about.

SIMON: Gary Shteyngart - his novel, "Lake Success." Thanks so much for being with us.

SHTEYNGART: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.