Gary Shteyngart has a knack for capturing the sense of dislocation and loss associated with the immigrant experience, displayed in novels like The Russian Debutante's Handbook (2002), Absurdistan (2006), and most poignantly in his 2014 hilarious memoir Little Failure. Born into Jewish family in Leningrad, the former Soviet Union, Shteyngart moved to Queens with his parents at the age of 7, experiencing what might be charitably described as a rocky start to his new life in the US. Lake Success (Random House, 2018), Shteyngart's latest novel, is a tragicomedy about hedge-fund manager Barry Cohen, who abandons his career and family for a cross-country bus ride to rediscover himself. Think of it as a dystopian On the Road for the Trump era, written by one our greatest satirists at a time when satire itself may be past its prime. Shteyngart and his family split their time between an apartment in Manhattan and a house in northern Dutchess County.
—Brian K. Mahoney
Brian K. Mahoney: You've written about the Hudson Valley in your work a number of times. The first time I noticed it was when you name-checked Stockade Tavern in a New Yorker piece. How did you first come to know the Hudson Valley?
Gary Shtyengart: Does Ellenville count as the Hudson Valley?
BKM: It sure does.
GS: Yeah, then for sure it was, we had a dacha, which is a Russian bungalow. Every summer, we'd go up there. It ended up having a chapter or so in my memoir, Little Failure. We spent a lot of time there, and it was also the happiest time of the year. Getting away from school is always happy for a kid. It was happy also because it was a Russian bungalow colony, and I felt really out of place.
I didn't speak English at first. In this bungalow colony, everybody spoke Russian. All the kids spoke Russian with me, so I felt like I really belonged. It was also really, really beautiful. My whole life, I have this idea of having a place somewhere upstate. Of course, I ended upon the other side of the river. It's just my favorite place in the world. I don't think there's anything more beautiful than the Mid-Hudson Valley.
BKM: I've seen your photos on Instagram documenting Overlook and Huckleberry Point, and other spots. You've taken to the natural world.
GS: Yeah no. I go on a lot of, and to say hikes may be overstating it, but a lot of walks/possible hikes. Almost every week I do something like that. There's just so many places. I love hiking around Lake Taghkanic and Poet's Walk, Mills Mansion, Overlook. The list goes on and on.
BKM: What's a good day for you when you're upstate?
GS: A good day is waking up around nine or 10, taking it easy, then going for a very long swim in the pool, for like an hour or even longer after lunch, and a little bit of work. Then when it gets a little bit cooler, going for a very long hike. The swim and the hike, one can replace the other. Getting in a good hike/walk and a good swim, you really feel great. People say I look much better in the summer because I'm able to do all that. When I'm in the city, I look like crap.
BKM: Lake Success is a bit of a departure from your previous books.
GS: When I was writing Little Failure, the idea was that I would write to such an extent about my past and my childhood, that for my next book, I wouldn't be able to write about Soviet Russian, Jewish immigrants. Barry Cohen is not Russian, but he is Jewish, so baby steps. For me, the only way I could do that departure is to get rid of all the material that I could in Little Failure, which is why there's that progression in Little Failure and Lake Success.
BKM: Little Failure was an exorcism in a way?
GS: In a way, or a fire sale if you will, yeah.
BKM: Okay, sure. That's a better metaphor. Lake Success is more naturalistic in tone and less satirical than your previous books.
GS: I wanted to do something more realistic. I think in some ways, it's hard to write about the times we live in without doing satire because they're such satirical times, but on the other end, if you look at it, what's happening politically is pure satire. Everything is an exaggeration.