Jun 2, 2019

Roy's Success

shteyngart Lake Success Review Rating Men's Book Club
Dinner and Acknowledgments

When it comes to preparing our group's dinner, Roy sets an exceedingly high bar...for himself.  With few exceptions (a delivery from Sol Food comes to mind), he's always worked from scratch and aimed for something a little different.  Remember his Dungeness crab?  Manhattan-style sandwiches?  Anzac biscuits and dirty rice balls?  Well, last Tuesday was more of the same.

To accompany Shteyngart's financier-on-the-run escapade, and with the protagonist's $30,000 Japanese whiskey firmly in mind, Roy started us with a Caesar salad followed by a bouillabaisse stuffed with local halibut.  His main course was a delicious pasta seasoned with mentaiko (buttery fish roe), Korean chili threads, and shiso leaf.  For dessert, he served his own kumquat ice cream over son David's citrus cake. To wash it down, Roy laid out shot glasses of home-distilled brandy.  If it was all too rich and too much, we didn't care; we had a book about excess that needed pairing. 

Our Review and Discussion of Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

In his latest novel, the gilded ego of Gary Shteyngart's New York is contrasted with America's wholesomeness west of the Hudson River.  Well, sort of. The novel opens with an introduction to Barry Cohen, a hedge fund manager ("hedgie") whose fund's assets ("AUM") are declining rapidly, whose recent trades are under investigation, whose young child is autistic, and whose wife is looking elsewhere for affection.  Facing such challenges, Barry does what any red-blooded American would do:  he skips town in a Greyhound bus in search of a long-ago college girlfriend.  This being a journey of self-discovery, Barry gets to learn about himself while the reader learns about automatic watches, Greyhound buses, and--oh, yes--today's America.  

That's the trite summary.  Thankfully, Shteyngart's writing is not nearly so trite.  But neither is it free from criticism, at least from us.  Shteyngart commits the cardinal sin of saddling his reader with a repugnant main character.  As host Roy noted, Barry is both unlikable and implausible. Glen called him a narcissist and a sociopath; George described him as irredeemable. Paul said he fits nicely into almost any Woody Allen film (in a twisted, misogynistic way, of course).  Terry charitably noted that Barry merely voices the thoughts many have but are afraid to express.  Regardless, Barry's antagonizing presence in the narrative spoiled what should have been an amusing 21st century take on the Gatsby story.  

Our Rating of Lake Success 

If it weren't for Doug, we might have ended our discussion still moaning about Barry's shortcomings.  But Doug, with his usual insight, pushed us to appreciate Barry's quest for an ideal (love? success? contentment?) that is every bit as elusive for the other, more sympathetic characters in the story.  In fact, whether it stems from his own autism, his certitude about success and money, his luck of Kokura, or just native resilience, Barry returns to New York and his perch atop Wall Street a far cry from the man who fled in the middle of the night.  Because he challenges us to question everything we thought we knew about success and failure, we partially forgave Shteyngart his Barry Cohen and coughed up a grudgingly positive 5.8.

Next Up:  The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

Again we were presented with a Jack London doubleheader (Call of the Wild and White Fang) and again we resisted.  We also turned down Bad Blood and The Devil in the White City (second time) so we could instead read Luis Alberto Urrea's Pulitzer-nominated account of 26 men, an unforgiving frontier, and an immigration policy that continues to defy partisan solutions.  Next month we'll discuss whether anything has changed along our southern border in the last 18 years.