Lake Suc­cess: A Novel

Gary Shteyn­gart

By – September 17, 2018

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.

Discussion Questions

The great Amer­i­can road nov­el gets a much-need­ed update in Jew­ish Amer­i­can writer Gary Shteyngart’s new nov­el, Lake Suc­cess. In an attempt to escape his life in New York City as a hedge fund man­ag­er and the father of an autis­tic boy, Shteyngart’s pro­tag­o­nist, Bar­ry Cohen, sets out on a Grey­hound bus across a divid­ed and con­flict­ed Amer­i­ca. On his road trip, Bar­ry not only begins to under­stand his trou­bled coun­try dur­ing the rise of Trump, but he also dis­cov­ers his iden­ti­ty as a father and as a Jew.