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.


  1. Andrew, your prose continues to be elegant, eloquent, and entertaining. I hope that is enough of the positive reinforcement you demand, but as you at times are channeling your inner millennial, maybe we'll buy you a trophy as well.

    Roy's dinner as you comment was of course incredible. We are always guaranteed a culinary treat and unusual alcohol. I was not disappointed.

    The book however left me feeling less satisfied. While I love a good "on the road" story about escape, redemption, and finding America, I couldn't connect with any of the main characters in this book. While a book needn't be filled with happy likable people and unicorns, the reader looks for someone to like and there were precious few (and only minor characters) in this one. I mostly wanted to yell at the frustrating characters. I prefer either a more genuine motive and journey (Travels With Charlie, On The Road), or even the absurd (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).

    I also felt like this was a riff on Bonfire of the Vanities in that once again we are treated to materialistic Manhattan financial services wealthy people with big egos and big paychecks. Maybe it's the California boy in me, I dunno, though I felt Bonfire was more a straight and witty indictment while Lake Success asks you to believe in the last 20 pages that some form of redemption or conclusion has happened. I think some of the author's other work has been better, as evidenced by the 7.5 we gave to Super Sad True Love Story.

  2. Paul, I don’t like your insincerity, but I will take the trophy.

    As for the novel, Shteyngart clearly didn’t populate his book with Dale Carnegie grads. Instead, he picked the usual archetypes (the rich and powerful and their hangers on) and showed us their failings. As I pointed out during our dinner, it seemed every character was a failure in search of redemption. How they go about it is Shteyngart’s story. I enjoyed the book, as I also noted, but I get why a dreadful main character can be so off putting that it sours one on the experience of reading.

  3. The book Lake Success was an “inside baseball” look at the life of a New York City hedge fund manager. It that sense, it tried to be the Great Gatsby meets Bonfire of the Vanities, but seemed not up to either one. Unlike the two aforementioned modern classics, this book was long on esoteric details and short on the development of a real protagonist I could “invest” in. While I appreciate the author’s detailed knowledge of high end watches, I still don’t understand how his fund(s) made or lost money other than the need to hire quants who know spreadsheets.

    The book ended being a description of the twelve step program for the failings of the rich -- starting with a (plausible) deniability phase, moving on to a blame anyone else phase, then to a you can pay to skip the intervening ten steps phase and get right to the last “mea-culpa/redemption” phase. While this analysis may seem trite, one only need look at the 30 parents indicted in the Varsity Blues college admissions sandal, Mark Stevens – Warriors minority owner (and USC grad, Varsity Blues fans), Michael (the Fixer) Cohen and (Is my daddy) R. Kelly, to see this program in action. Note -- I gave Mark Zuckerberg a pass here since he did take my daughter off MY payroll.

    In the end I don’t see Lake Success appealing to an audience outside of the NYC Tri-state area (and those heavily invested in reading every issue of the New Yorker) due to its constant use of vernacular phrases and product placements. The book’s take away is “Its never too early to lawyer up”. Andrew – can we talk about your retainer fee?

  4. Just what I was talking about in my post! Your dislike of the main character for his many shortcomings becomes an indictment of the novel. Well, I agree Shteyngart is no Tom Wolfe, but if you're right (i.e., that Shteyngart's principal failing is that he wrote for and about a Tri-State milieu) then let's declare The New Yorker just as provincial as Lake Success!