Barry Cohen, husband and father, runs a hedge fund in New York with billions of dollars under management. Yet here he is, heading for Richmond, Virginia — on a Greyhound bus. What’s he running away from?
For one thing, his home life has fallen apart. He can’t bear his own disappointment that his 2-year-old son, Shiva, is autistic. Barry and his wife, Seema, have reached their breaking point — they can barely speak without shouting in anger. Oh, and law enforcement may be after him.
He’s full of contradictions. They call him the friendliest guy on Wall Street, but he has no real friends. He has a talent for finance, yet he’s a dreamer who imagines that his fantasies might come true. Barry’s bus ride to Richmond repeats a trip he once took with his college girlfriend, Layla, to meet her parents. It’s as if he wants to go back in time and relive his life, this time with Layla instead of Seema.
Barry also fantasizes about possible futures with people he meets along the way. He pictures himself as mentor to a young crack dealer in Baltimore, perhaps becoming partners in a foundation to help urban youth. A young woman who works in the office of a Marriott Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, he imagines, might have a future in marketing or investor relations under his tutelage.
Meanwhile, his family gets along without him. Seema finds comfort in an affair with a neighbor who is practically Barry’s antithesis. Her parents come to New York to help take care of Shiva, and the boy unexpectedly responds to his grandparents with a warmth Seema has never seen in him before.
Part of the brilliance of Lake Success lies in its fully realized characters. Barry makes a lot of bad decisions that hurt other people, but beneath it all he’s still the nerdy boy from Long Island who loves Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and who yearns to be liked. Seema, who gave up a legal career when she married Barry, rearranges her life and finds new purpose in her devotion to her son. Even the minor players come alive as memorable personalities.
Astutely depicted encounters between insiders and outsiders form a kind of subtext. Seema’s parents are Tamils from South Asia, immigrants to the United States, and Seema’s housekeeper, Novie, is Filipina. Barry is a different sort of foreigner — a nouveau riche among the one percent, a New York Jew in Mississippi, a white man in Baltimore’s inner city, an alien to the ways of his fellow Greyhound passengers.
If there is one quibble about this book, it’s the continual overuse of brand names, a sign of overzealous research. In one instance Shteyngart cites twelve brands within three consecutive paragraphs! Still, as the British author Anthony Powell used to say, with every writer there is always something you have to put up with.
Lake Success is another landmark in Shteyngart’s masterful body of work. He always writes with keen observation and wit. Here he also shows a singular appreciation for the varieties of human desire — for companionship, money, sex, prestige, acceptance, love — and a profound sympathy for human vulnerability. The result is a captivating story that is also deeply moving.