‘Lake Success’: It’s All About Your State of Mind

If you wade into Lake Success, or even just repose on its banks, are you primed for a life of achievement and glory, similar to the way taking a dip in the River Styx renders you invulnerable?

Lake Success
Gary Shteyngart
Random House
Sep 2018

The first noticeable thing about Lake Success, the new novel by Gary Shteyngart (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, Super Sad True Love Story), is that it’s populated by characters we haven’t seen before. Given our knowledge – gleaned from his memoir, Little Failure – that his trusty stock of literary figures comprises in large part thinly veiled adaptations of himself and his loved ones, this is a major and welcome shift.

Sure, Barry Cohen is a Jewish New Yorker. But he’s not a Russian immigrant (or even born to a couple that immigrated from Russia). Also, he works in finance, has an Indian American wife, and is father to a child with developmental disabilities. Moreover, Shteyngart fashions a tale that revolves around Seema, his wife, as much as it does around Barry; an omniscient narrator inhabits Barry’s mind one chapter, and Seema’s the next, relating the story from two very different and often clashing perspectives.

Lake Success also boasts an impressive trans-American descriptive sweep, and emerges as quite poignant in its treatment of how an infant boy’s autism affects his parents’ relationship. All this makes up for a heavy-handed “lessons learned” type of wrap-up, as well as an earlier romanticization of working-class people of color.

So what’s the title all about? If you wade into Lake Success, or even just repose on its banks, are you primed for a life of achievement and glory, similar to the way taking a dip in the River Styx renders you invulnerable?

Not quite. In both the novel and the real world, Lake Success is a town on Long Island. But it’s also very much a state of mind – all the more so if we’re talking about Barry’s mind. Growing up in Queens the son of a gruff single father (his mother was killed in an automobile accident when he was five – and a passenger in the car) with the lowly socio-economic status of a swimming pool cleaner, Barry fantasized about life in Lake Success. As he explains during a conversation with his ex-girlfriend’s son, “I wanted to move somewhere, and Lake Success had this shopping center and all the houses had these awesome backyards you could put a pool in.” [225]

Barry would eventually find success in Manhattan as founder and manager of a now-beleaguered hedge fund called This Side of Capital (a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise; the guy has a literary bent.) He’d also land a wife both beautiful and intelligent (younger, too; Seema is 29 to his 43 when the story begins) with whom he’d have a child, Shiva.

But that’s where things took a wrong turn. “Shiva… wasn’t merely delayed, but in some terrible way broken.” [32]

Such is Barry’s unkind view, at any rate. You see, three-year-old Shiva – who doesn’t speak, recoils from physical contact, and seems to fear people – is severely autistic. Not that the doctors, who have only just diagnosed him, used “the A-word”, [34] which has apparently gone out of fashion. “It was ‘spectrum’ this and ‘spectrum’ that. And ‘kids with Shiva’s profile.'” [34] And Barry? He had a vivid conception of the (three) kids he wanted to raise with Seema, and is now overcome with “[t]his feeling that the future you imagined with someone would, in all actuality, never exist.” [34]

Lake Success, the bulk of which takes place in the tension-filled run-up to the 2016 presidential election, opens with Barry – disheveled, bleeding from a cut on his forehead and another under his eye, and wheeling a carry-on rollerboard behind him – arriving at the Port Authority Bus Terminal well before daybreak one morning. In trying to convince a seemingly recalcitrant Shiva to utter something akin to speech back home, he had manhandled the poor kid, who predictably went into a swivet. Seema and even the nanny set upon Barry in a matter of seconds, their nails doing some damage. For him, the brouhaha is the last straw, in part because of Seema’s repeated digs this past stretch; earlier that very night, she had informed their dinner hosts, a couple that lives a few floors down in the same building, that “[p]eople in finance have no imagination. They have no soul.” [27]

So Barry decides to leave. He throws away his credit cards and embarks on a road trip via a string of Greyhound buses, the better “to see the country as it really is,” [99] but also to reconnect with his girlfriend from his college days at Princeton: Layla. The ingenuity of Shteyngart’s treatment of Barry’s subsequent adventures across America lies in the protagonist’s big-hearted yet fanciful desire to help everyone from disadvantaged inner-city black youth to Layla’s socially awkward son. Everyone, that is, except Shiva.

Take Javon, a young (would-be) drug dealer in an economically depressed Baltimore neighborhood, who insists on selling crack cocaine even though the demand these days is all for “one and one”, [72] or heroin and cocaine. Barry, whose chief avocation is collecting and maintaining mind-bogglingly expensive watches (and drinking similarly priced whiskey), “pictured the two of them working some kind of start-up. What if they launched a foundation? One that would help urban youth buy their first mechanical watch and learn to care for it?” [77] Over the course of his road trip, Barry will revisit this notion and tweak it frequently.

Barry’s (non-committal) brand of altruism extends to those who, unlike Javon, are doing rather well for themselves. During his sojourn in Atlanta, he wants to mentor former This Side of Capital employee Jeff Park. (Never mind that he fired the guy back in New York over an honest, albeit costly, mistake.) “You can get a better watch than a Rolex Sky-Dweller,” [148] he tells Jeff, unbidden. “It looks like a Russian oligarch died on your wrist. That’s not the image someone as smart as you wants to project.” [148] Tactless Barry says such things even though Jeff is putting him up at his apartment.

One person who could admittedly benefit from some of what Barry has to offer is Jonah, his ex-girlfriend Layla’s nine-year-old son. While living with Layla (who’s divorced) and Jonah in El Paso, he rekindles a less-than-red-hot relationship with her, and comes to teach the introverted and somewhat socially inept kid how to make friends and how to swim.

All these segments prove entertaining, with those featuring Jonah having an additional touching quality. At the same time, they reinforce, in refreshingly unobtrusive fashion, the paradox at the core of Barry’s being. Barry’s enthusiasm for helping someone seems to dissipate if it isn’t at his discretion to determine the kind of assistance to be doled out. The most powerful moment of Lake Success occurs just after he assures Seema that Shiva’s near-muteness stems from a lack of desire to talk to people, something Barry maintains has long characterized his own disposition – which naturally means that he knows just how to resolve the problem. “He can’t talk because he can’t coordinate his fine motor movements to produce what we recognize as speech,” [308] his wife informs him. “That’s why he can’t talk. Not because he doesn’t want to.” [308]

Compared to Barry’s chapters, those centered on Seema are constricted in terms of subject matter as well as setting (despite the fact that Shteyngart, perhaps mindful that he’d do well to avoid allowing the material to become homebound and overly domestic, has her visit her parents in Ohio and engage in an extramarital affair in New York). Yet two aspects of these sections go some way toward rounding out the story. The first, Seema’s experience with Shiva, is obvious enough; Barry’s flashbacks, shot through with a mixture of love, disappointment, and bitterness, cannot suffice to give the reader a full picture of the kid, especially the (slow) progress he’s making in person-to-person interaction and nonverbal communication during his father’s absence.

The second story-enhancing element here concerns the fallout of an instance of insider trading that has landed Barry in hot water with the authorities. Remember the paradox? Well, as he gallivants across America trying to mentor people left, right, and center, Barry isn’t just neglecting his son back home; he blithely skips any kind of self-reckoning over his hedge fund’s enabling role in a pharmaceutical company having “hiked up prices on some lifesaving diuretic or whatnot.” [148] Shteyngart ensures that this subject crops up every so often, including in a talk Barry has with Jeff Park, whose ailing father was directly affected by the fact that the price of a month’s supply of the diuretic he couldn’t live without suddenly rose from $30 to $700 (Jeff stepped in to cover the extra cost). Seema’s chapters, however, bring into play the more directly relevant matter of her thoughts and game-changing actions on the matter.

Where Shteyngart stumbles with Lake Success is in occasionally romanticizing working-class people of color (he’s not nearly as starry-eyed when it comes to white working-class folk, whom he tends to depict in a warts-and-all fashion, and as such includes racists and/or Trump supporters). Indeed, it’s ironic that Shteyngart, who pokes fun at Barry’s witlessness around blacks and Hispanics, should himself at times prove downright silly when detailing their encounters. Javon, who’s black, makes for a cringe-worthy example – because although he’s working class in terms of his socio-economic station, he’s a criminal by profession. It turns out that Javon, whose initial encounter with Barry consists of knocking his plastic cup of juice out of his hand and warning him that he “best tip on out” [70] of the neighborhood because he’s not interested in buying drugs, is a sweetie. Barry duly tips on out, only to return and employ his “friend moves”, [74] honed as a child with initially no aptitude for small talk, to disarming effect; the two of them end up seated on a stoop, chatting away. Then, before they part, Javon gives him some crack cocaine for free.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Shteyngart also falters in the novel’s epilogue, which is set a decade later and clumsily trots out a self-critical Barry. Whereas in previous works Shteyngart has at times subverted the story in favor of caricature-heavy humor, this is the only point in Lake Success where something similar occurs, though here it’s for the sake of a kind of moral message.

Well, at least the message is one you’re unlikely to disagree with, and is conveyed through a heartwarming scenario. Barry, who looked like he had a head start on the rest of us insofar as attaining personal happiness was concerned, turns out to have had it all wrong. After much ado and much time, he figures this out. Even better, he determines where the real shining city on a hill with a shimmering lake of success is to be found – and dives in.

RATING 8 / 10