Since the 2016 election, reporters have consumed a lot of jet fuel and Panera sandwiches in the name of understanding the heartland Trump voter. In his new novel, “Lake Success,” Gary Shteyngart suggests they’ve been looking in the wrong place. Better they track down the hedge fund managers and other American oligarchs whose greed and obliviousness helped fuel Trump’s rise. Turn that rock over, and all sorts of peculiar creatures wriggle out.
“I wasn’t even lucky enough to be born to immigrant parents,” whines Barry, the hero of Shteyngart’s very funny, very acid satire. He’s a billionaire on paper and a mess in reality: His fund is tanking, regulators are circling, and he can’t cope with his severely autistic son and crumbling marriage. To reboot, he impulsively takes a Greyhound to track down a lost love, accompanied only by a clutch of his beloved, wildly expensive watches.
Barry’s jaunt through the South and Southwest during the 2016 campaign is at once a social and political journey — “Sullivan’s Travels” by way of “Game Change.” In Baltimore, he witnesses German tourists on a “Wire”-themed bus tour. In Atlanta, he’s baffled by a former co-worker who isn’t committed to avarice. His ex in El Paso, Texas, is a Holocaust scholar besieged by racist trolls. And the bus itself is practically a foreign country: “People talked about where they had gone to prison the way people on the Acela talked about where they had gone to law school.”
Barry is hard to sympathize with, but his worldview is entertainingly Swiftian, absurdly upside-down. When his wife, Seema, criticizes his economy-warping career, he finds it charming. (“Barry couldn’t get enough of her erudite outrage.”) When he learns his ex is single, his heart sings. (“Divorce. That glorious word.”)
Shteyngart often shuttles between mocking Barry and pillorying him, which makes for lively writing either way. He’s a study in outsize narcissism, a bubble that needs popping. “Man takes a bus across the county and discovers he’s a father,” Seema tells him. “You’re such a [expletive] weirdo.”
But here’s the most pointed message of “Lake Success”: Guys like Barry are always going to be OK, saved by their money and privilege. Shteyngart is careful not to make Barry a black hat — his interactions with his autistic son are compassionately rendered, and Barry is more dim than craven. But a nice guy who does not-nice work serves as a warning as well as a punch line.
“We lived in a country that rewarded its worst people,” Shteyngart writes. “We lived in a society where the villains were favored to win.” He has no advice on how to change the odds, but he’s put a spotlight on how the game is rigged.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix and the author of “The New Midwest.”
By: Gary Shteyngart.
Publisher: Random House, 338 pages, $28.
Event: 7 p.m. Sept. 24, Kagin Commons, Macalester College, St. Paul, hosted by Rain Taxi. Tickets ($30) include signed book. <a href="http://www.raintaxi.com/gary-shteyngart/">raintaxi.com/gary-shteyngart</a>.