Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, “Lake Success,’’ opens with a doozy of a paragraph:
“Barry Cohen, a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management, staggered into the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He was visibly drunk and bleeding. There was a clean slice above his left brow where the nanny’s fingernail had gouged him and, from his wife, a teardrop scratch below his eye. It was 3:20 A.M.’’
Juxtapositions of immense power and shocking vulnerability, glory and abasement, financial wealth and emotional impoverishment run throughout “Lake Success,’’ a rollicking, uproariously funny, bitingly satiric yet also warm and big-hearted novel.
The saga begins “during the year 2016, at the start of the First Summer of Trump.” Barry’s three-year-old son, Shiva, was diagnosed as severely autistic two months earlier. (The spectrum is a major theme.) His seemingly picture-perfect marriage to Seema, a gorgeous Indian-American Yale Law School graduate with whom he’d hoped to have “three beige babies,” has lost its juice and its joy. The SEC is investigating him; he feels acutely his “failure as a titan of finance.” Everything he’d held most dear is suddenly, devastatingly, in question: “He didn’t know who his wife and son were. One hated him and the other seemed incapable of feeling . . . Shouldn’t he just start all over again?”
And so, Barry casts aside his phone and Amex black card (but packs six of his most prized watches) and sets off on a cross-country odyssey, hoping to recover a sense of youthful optimism and infinite possibility. From Richmond, Va., to Atlanta, El Paso, Texas, to Ciudad Juarez, Phoenix to La Jolla, Calif., traveling mostly aboard Greyhound buses, he meets and mingles with the other 99 percent. Along the way, he rekindles a romance with his college sweetheart, Layla, and touchingly bonds with her brilliant but rigid and introverted son (another child on the spectrum?).
Meanwhile, Seema, painfully lonely and isolated in both her rich wife and autism-mom bubbles, falls into an affair with a Guatamalan writer who lives in their apartment building. Her relentlessly critical yet fundamentally loving mother hectors and harasses her, while her patient and ingenious father cajoles Shiva into connecting with them and the larger world.
In certain ways, Barry is a typical hedge-fund guy. He drinks $33,000 bottles of Karuizawa single-cask whiskey and collects staggeringly expensive watches. “One of the many things on his marriage checklist was to marry a woman too ambitious to ever become fat.”
But Barry is no simple caricature. The son of an abusive pool guy from Queens, he was a socially awkward loner, practicing his “friend moves” in secret, and is still riddled with insecurities and self-doubt. He doesn’t cheat on Seema, who “had been his best friend,’’ and abstains from the high-end prostitutes and strip clubs frequented by his compatriots. He’s proud of his “minor in writing from Princeton,” named his hedge fund, “This Side of Capital,” after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, and imagines himself as a latter-day Jack Kerouac while on his journey (he’s also a rich man’s Rabbit Angstrom). He wants to be an honorable and inspiring mentor to young hedge funders and crack dealers alike.
As he fumbles and bumbles his way along, Barry is crass, egocentric, but nonetheless sympathetic. His intentions are usually good. Even as we groan at his politically incorrect remarks, wince at his overweening ambition, we are endeared to him by his genuine desire to connect with others and to be a good man. His “mistakes . . . [are] made out of ignorance not meanness.” Barry isn’t a tough guy; in fact, he’s poignantly adrift:
“Barry cried every few weeks, cried about his son, his failing business, his dead parents, the fact that he didn’t really know who he was. When he could sense the tears coming, he put on an old Omega Speedy with the patinated brown dial and the ghosted arabic numerals on the subdials.’’
That Barry uses his watches to gain control and soothe himself, not to mention his social inappropriateness and aversion to Seema’s hugs, suggests that he may himself be on the autism spectrum; ironic, then, that he considers his boy “in some terrible way broken.” Part of what Barry learns is that his son’s autism is not a disease to be cured, his son not a project to be fixed. Barry’s “incredible journey of self-discovery” involves a chastening of the rigid perfectionism that has led him to recoil from his son’s difference and embrace a wider range of humanity.
A few of the comic subplots, especially the one involving a crack rock, strain the limits of credulity, even for Shteyngart’s absurd universe, and homoerotic elements to Barry’s relationships with several men feel distracting. But line after line, scene after scene, “Lake Success’ feels both linguistically fecund and emotionally robust. Zingers abound, but so do genuinely touching moments.
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’