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book review

‘Little Failure’ By Gary Shteyngart

brigitte lacombe for the boston globe

THE FUNNIEST people are sometimes the angriest. George Carlin, Andy Kaufman, and Richard Pryor all had a beef with the world, and they beat it to the punch with barbed humor — often by simply stating what was true before it could be said straight.

In the past decade, Gary Shteyngart has plied a similar brand of comedy in fiction. In a trio of novels he burlesqued the immigrant experience to the point of absurdity, just when so-called immigrant fiction was beginning to define America’s declining empire.

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There are more to his books, however, than laughs. Beneath the mangled Russian and fumbled sex lurks a terrible moral compromise. To achieve the success their parents’ desire, Shteyngart’s heroes have to adapt, and to adapt means to betray their immigrant parents.

“[T]he hardships I’ve faced,” says the mother of Vladmir, the hero of Shteyngart’s debut, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.” “Always with the little details . . . I wake up and the details are choking me. Why is my life so difficult, tell me, treasure?”

“Little Failure” tells the story of how Shteyngart wrote these energetic and beautiful books, but the memoir is most successful when read as an answer to this mother’s question.

“Little Failure” is the tale of a family straddling the end of the Soviet Union and the stock bubbles of 21st century Manhattan. The bridge between the two is the life of the only child, Gary, who feels that his youth was spent “as a kind of tuning fork for my parents’ fears, disappointments, and alienation.” Here is where his anger comes from.

The story begins at the now-defunct Strand Bookstore annex downtown, in the shadow of the former World Trade Towers, where Shteyngart worked as a paralegal in the waning days of the 20th century.

The young novelist picks up a book and sees a photo of Chesme Church in the city formerly known as Leningrad. He goes into a full-blown panic attack. “There’s dryness and wetness all at once, but in the wrong places,” Shteyngart writes, “as if the armpits and the mouth have embarked upon a cultural exchange.”

And so we go, boomeranging back to Shteyngart’s childhood, back to that very square, where the author was born in 1972, Igor Shteyngart. In America he would become Gary, so as not to be mistaken for “Frankenstein’s assistant.’’ Steyngart itself was also an invention. His family name is actually Steinhorn, which means Stone Horn.

“I have clearly spent thirty-nine years unaware that my real destiny was to go through life as a Bavarian porn star,” he jokes.

As Shteyngart unravels his family lines, the jokes grow darker. One great-grandfather is murdered for money, while other relatives march swiftly into Stalinist purges and the great industrial killing machine of World War II, the death camps.

Moving between the near present and his family history, Shteyngart fathoms the depth of desperation that must have ghosted his own childhood. His father, an engineer with an independent streak, and his mother, a typist, are ill-matched but cling to one another.

Little Igor was asthmatic, worried, sniffly, yet bright. Skinny as “a tiny vertical dachshund,” Igor is uprooted in 1979 for America, his family part of a grain trade President Carter made with the USSR in which excess American capacity was swapped for excess Soviet Jews, who were given visas to the United States.

From Moscow to Vienna they travel, Igor’s first time seeing “exotic nongray colors,” and on to Rome, before finally arriving in Queens. They are poor. “My toys,” Shteyngart remembers, “are two clothes pins on which we hang our laundry” and a candy wrapper.

Now renamed Gary, the pale little boy with very bad English is sent off to a Jewish day school. He is teased mercilessly, while his mother works in a watch factory and his father chews over his compromises.

“I burn with a black envy toward you,” his father, who dreamed of singing opera, will one day tell him. “I should have been an artist as well.”

Shteyngart’s relationship with his father is one of the central love stories of this book. The father wants his boy to be strong, not weak, and tries to beat strength into him. When that fails he tries to simply show it by example.

“Little Failure,” which takes its title from a word coined by Shteyngart’s mother about her boy, oscillates between the physical rages of a father and the smothering love of a mother.

Any family will relate here to the peculiar economy of generosity that develops in a family fighting its own demise. After school, Gary flees into the arms of his grandmother, where he gorges on Doritos and Ho-Hos bought with food stamps.

She learned to adapt by providing; he learns to adapt by making people laugh — “humor being the last resort of the besieged Jew.” In school he makes friends by writing his own Torah, called the Gnorah, which fellow students crack up over.

Gradually, his Russian childhood becomes a deeply American one. He fishes for license plates in Honeycomb boxes, his English improves, his parents move to the suburbs, and Gary becomes a typical high school student of the 1980s, hiding his terror behind copious amounts of marijuana and Drakkar Noir.

If “Little Failure” slows a bit as it arcs between adolescence and the writer’s 20s, here is where it becomes most heartbreaking.

Shteyngart describes how he ruthlessly trades all the love his parents have showered on him for the affection of other more authentically American friends, people who might help his writing career.

Memoirs often suffer from the self-protective urge embedded in how we tell stories. A satirist at heart, Shteyngart has never possessed such instincts. “Little Failure” spares its author none of hindsight’s knives.

He becomes a user, an alcoholic, a startlingly accurate imitation of a privileged monster.

When success arrives, Shteyngart isn’t prepared for it, but shortly thereafter he performs his most impressive adaptation yet. He goes back, to Russia, to see where it began.

That trip, taken over a dozen years ago, was the beginning of “Little Failure,” and in its final pages Shteyngart has done something remarkable for someone so rewarded for being someone else. He has dismantled the armor of his humor to give readers his most tender and affecting gift yet: himself.

John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.’’
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