Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart: A review

I know people who say they can't abide reading books that don't have characters that they can empathize or identify with. It's easy to understand that instinctual need to feel good about the characters that populate the book one has committed to reading. But I would argue that sometimes there is much to be learned from reading about unsympathetic characters; characters who, not to put too fine a point on it, are complete and total jerks. Barry Cohen is such a character.

Barry is everyone's stereotype of the narcissistic Wall Street hedge fund manager, who lives in his own self-deluded fantasy world and persuades others to trust him with their money and then loses it while amassing his own personal fortune. Investigated by the SEC, he skates free by paying a large fine but never spends any time in jail and never gets banned from further trading and so he continues to do the same thing over and over again. Sound like a story you might have heard in the news?

There is, of course, more to Barry. He has a wife named Seema, who is a first-generation American of Tamil Indian parents. She is an extremely smart non-practicing lawyer who gave up her career to stay home with their autistic son. Yes, the tragedy of the otherwise dream life that Barry and Seema live is that their three-year-old son, Shiva, is profoundly autistic - or "on the spectrum" in current terminology. He cannot speak and is unresponsive to his parents. He has a full-time nanny, a Philippine immigrant, who actually cares for him, and he has an entire team of therapists who work with him weekly to try to bring him into a functioning relationship with the world around him. This is all very expensive. Lucky that his parents are billionaires.

When the walls begin to close in on Barry - his hedge fund fails; the SEC investigators are getting closer; he can't deal with the fact of his son's autism; his marriage is failing - he flees. He takes a Greyhound bus to go and "look for America," as Paul Simon once wrote. (He can leave because he knows that Seema will stay, that she will not abandon their son as he is doing.)
"Like your first ankle monitor bracelet or your fourth divorce, the occasional break with reality was an important part of any hedge-fund titan's biography."
In fact, Barry is looking for the simpler life that he once lived as a college student with his first love. He goes in search of that woman, hoping to reclaim the magic of that time in his life. 

His college love was from Richmond but now lives in El Paso. He heads south. Through Baltimore, then Richmond to stop at his girlfriend's old home and visit her parents, south to Atlanta, then west through Birmingham, Jackson, Dallas, and finally on to El Paso. At each stop along the way, Shteyngart gives us quick portraits of communities and people all of which reveal another layer of Barry's self-absorbed and egotistical personality. Essentially, it is self-obsession all the way down.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Seema is facing her own demons, beginning an affair with a neighbor, and finally taking her own trip west, to the Midwest in her case, to visit her parents and perhaps reclaim her own personhood. 

These are, in short, two imperfect characters flailing around in a world of self-deluded chaos of their own making, and the background of the whole thing is the presidential campaign of 2016 which just lends further impetus to the descent into entropy. 

I thought the novel was brilliant. I didn't like Barry one little bit, although in the end I did have the faintest bit of sympathy for him and a bit more for Seema. I think if we are honest we can concede that there may just be the tiniest particle of Barry/Seema lurking in all of us. 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


  1. Hey, I just finished this one too! And I completely agree it is brilliant.

  2. It has a generic plot, yes we have seen those guys plenty of times in the news, but it seems that the author knew how to make the story timely and fresh. Glad both you and Judy liked it.


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