Lake Success

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Lake Success
352 pages; Random House
The prototypical Shteyngart hero is an endearing (if slightly unlikable) doofus with a nerd bod and thick glasses who bravely squares off against bullies. But the Absurdistan author ups the ante with Lake Success (Random House), double-daring us to root for his hopelessly politically incorrect antihero, Barry Cohen, a hedge funder who's bet it all on a bottom-feeding drug company. After a drunken run-in with his wife gets out of hand, Barry plots a hasty escape from her, their autistic 3-year-old son, and his imploding business, hurling his cell phone into a trash can at New York City's Port Authority bus terminal. Carrying only a case full of expensive watches he can't bear to leave behind, he boards a 4 a.m. Greyhound to reunite with an ex he hasn't seen or heard from in 20-plus years, now living in El Paso.

Imagining himself to be on a Kerouac-esque field trip to slip the "surly bonds" of Park Avenue and find "refuge in America," Barry gets a crash course in how the other 99.5 percent lives. Each encounter with drug dealers, truck drivers, and preachers, while passing through Baltimore, Richmond, Atlanta, and points west, is a chance for him to repurpose the "friend moves" he's used on would-be investors to charm his fellow travelers. These face-offs are both painful and hilarious, like a twisted hybrid of Dostoevsky and Ali G. And they provide a much-needed dose of reality, nudging Barry toward a realization that no amount of money will make his wife love him or enable his child to speak.

With Lake Success, Shteyngart manages to satirize identity politics and vulture capitalism while tenderly probing the intricacies of love and parenthood. For all its snark, the novel is devastatingly poignant—and finally hopeful. If even Barry can get kinder and gentler, so can America itself.
— Lisa Zeidner