At the turning point in his journey of misery and discovery, protagonist Barry Cohen daydreams of Lake Success, NY. It’s like looking for a rope when drowning. A Manhattan mega-capitalist who has spun out of the fast lane, he imagines it’s a safe landing spot, a more peaceful suburban life, replete with healthy sons and matching sinks and domestic bliss. Lake Success is a place of zero madness, he seems to believe, a nostalgic town of anonymity and normalcy. It is perhaps no ironic accident on the author’s part that this real town was once the location of the United Nations HQ (the book is an international POC extravaganza, most of whom get along) and Sperry-Rand’s gyroscope engineering center (stability, anyone?)
“Lake Success” is an intelligent, piercing, and often humorous look at the Manhattan rich and the American not-so-rich and all the woes befallen to both. It’s set in 2016, the advent of the surprising and, to many, nauseating era of Donald Trump.
We get the added benefit of Shteyngart’s’s ability to write travelog, as he takes his main character by bus from NYC to Richmond to Atlanta to El Paso-Juarez (the author nails the fear of the place perfectly), and at last to San Diego to see his father’s grave.
For all the trouble Barry Cohen creates for himself, he comes out at the end, escaping ignominy and insolvency (he has 35 million left). He re-gathers accomplices in the land of ruthless hedge-fund players and goes on with his life, now single. It couldn’t be any other way. He is an unlikeable character from the start, and often his failures are well deserved. Only his magnetic charm and deep pockets save the day.
He does have a certain Holden Caulfield innocence once away from the trappings of Wall Street, and for this we can say he’s a likable jerk. He loves kids and passionately tries to change the lives of two of them. He dislikes phoniness, begins to realize the danger of designing women. He seeks the heart of the world, stripped down and pitiful, having run away from The Top – and at considerable risk to family and self. Sometimes we worry more about his black Mastercard or his prized watch collection.
It can get ugly. Barry huffs crack and gets pathetically physical with a man behind a bus station. On another occasion he hooks up with a beautiful black girl seated next to him on the bus. After they have sex in a hotel room, Barry thinks she has stolen his things (she actually put them in the room safe). Both events are gratuitous and kind of creepy. Characters eat each other in this book like cannibals, capitalist ones.
In the Big Ending, we are preconditioned to feel warm and take out our hankies over his autistic son’s dramatic bar mitzvah. It’s difficult to feel much empathy or joy, considering the place of wealth and privilege Barry rented out so the kid can become a man. Yet one concludes this too is consistent with the story. Money is what he ultimately knows. Barry Cohen is, after all, still a very rich asshole who can buy and settle for another kind of “Success.”