A hedge fund manager on the skids takes a cross-country Greyhound bus trip to reconnect with his college girlfriend, leaving his wife to deal with their autistic 3-year-old in Gary Shteyngart’s “Lake Success.”
“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.” Shteyngart gleefully sends Barry, on the run from troubles at work as well as his inability to face up to his son’s recent diagnosis, on an odyssey that the author himself made on a Greyhound bus during the lead-up to the 2016 election, thus joining Salman Rushdie, Olivia Laing, Curtis Sittenfeld and others with recent works set in the dawn of the Trump era. Barry is, in some ways, a bit of a Trump himself: He’s from Queens, has a serious inferiority/superiority complex, has achieved his success through means other than actual financial genius. Barry, however, is a likable naif whose first stop is Baltimore, where he uses the “friend moves” he developed in middle school to bond with a crack dealer named Javon. He leaves Baltimore with a rock in his pocket and the dream of establishing an Urban Watch Fund, where he would share with underprivileged kids his obsession with Rolexes and Patek Phillipes as a means to self-betterment. In fact, Barry has left New York with not a single change of clothes, only a carry-on suitcase full of absurdly valuable watches. And now there’s that crack rock. Off he goes to Richmond, Atlanta, Jackson, El Paso, Ciudad Juarez, Phoenix and La Jolla, the home of an ex he’s been out of touch with for years. Alternating chapters visit his wife, Seema, the daughter of Indian immigrants, who’s back in New York with their silent son, Shiva, and his nanny, conducting an affair with a downstairs neighbor, a successful Guatemalan writer named Luis Goodman (whose biographical overlap with the real writer Francisco Goldman has all the markings of an inside joke).
“Lake Success” is as good as anything we’ve seen from this author: smart, relevant, fundamentally warm-hearted, hilarious of course, and it has a great ending.
(Shteyngart will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 7 p.m. Sept. 14 at Central Presbyterian Church. Tickets are $31 and include a copy of “Lake Success.” Information: bookpeople.com.)
Parallel family dramas
Alternating between two centuries, Barbara Kingsolver’s “Unsheltered” examines the personal and social shocks that ensue when people’s assumptions about the world and their place in it are challenged.
The magazine Willa Knox worked for went broke, and so did the college where her husband, Iano, had tenure, destroying the market value of their Virginia home, which stood on college land. They should be grateful to have inherited a house in Vineland, N.J., just a half-hour commute from Iano’s new, non-tenured one-year gig, except it’s falling apart, and they have been abruptly saddled with son Zeke’s infant after his girlfriend commits suicide. In the same town during Ulysses Grant’s presidency, science teacher Thatcher Greenwood is also grappling with a house he can’t afford to repair as well as a headmaster hostile to his wish to discuss Darwin’s theory of evolution with his students and a young wife interested only in social climbing. While Willa strives to understand how her comfortable middle-class life could have vanished overnight, her 26-year-old daughter, Tig, matter-of-factly sees both her mother’s disbelief and her Greek-immigrant grandfather Nick’s racist diatribes and hearty approval of presidential candidate Donald Trump as symptoms of a dying culture of entitlement and unbridled consumption. Lest this all sound schematic, Kingsolver has enfolded her political themes in two dramas of family conflict with full-bodied characters, including Mary Treat, a real-life 19th-century biologist enlisted here as the fictional friend and intellectual support of beleaguered Thatcher. Sexy, mildly feckless Iano and Thatcher’s feisty sister-in-law, Polly, are particularly well-drawn subsidiary figures, and Willa’s doubts and confusion make her the appealing center of the 21st-century story. The paired conclusions, although hardly cheerful, see hope in the indomitable human instinct for survival. Nonetheless, the words that haunt are Tig’s judgment on blinkered America: “All the rules have changed and it’s hard to watch people keep carrying on just the same, like it’s business as usual.”
As always, Kingsolver gives readers plenty to think about. Her warm humanism coupled with an unabashed point of view make her a fine 21st-century exponent of the honorable tradition of politically engaged fiction.
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