Behold: the leading edge of pandemic literature. Last year, in a superhuman feat, Scottish author Ali Smith delivered "Summer," the brilliant final installment of her seasonal quartet, written in real time as COVID-19 raged across the globe. This spring Rachel Cusk published "Second Place," about overwrought artists quarantined in coastal England. And now comes Gary Shteyngart with his rollicking if occasionally strained "Our Country Friends," a Tolstoy-esque tale that depicts four men, three women and a nonbinary child hunkered down at a bungalow colony outside New York City.
Like other Shteyngart protagonists, Senderovsky is something of an avatar for the author, a Russian Jewish émigré married to a childhood acquaintance, Masha. They're very Manhattan: He's a neurotic writing professor, she's an uptight psychiatrist, and their adopted Chinese child, Nat (née "Natasha"), professes passions for Asian boy bands and gender fluidity. Senderovsky's high school friends — Karen, Korean-American and a wealthy Silicon Valley innovator, and Vinod, a struggling writer on the rebound from lung cancer — have also decamped to the country, where they're joined by well heeled Ed and Dee, a swaggering, sexy transplant from Southern trailer parks and a former student of Senderovsky's.
When worlds collide, expect sparks. In the woods, Senderovsky has built a crescent of bungalows around a main house, each with an exotic place name. The sojourn gets off to a rocky start as buried desires and antagonisms surface in close quarters, financial triumphs weighed against stalled careers. Tensions boil over with the arrival of the Actor, a handsome film star and alpha male.
Shteyngart skewers the petty narcissisms of cultural elites with trademark hilarity. His descriptions are precise and elegant, as in this portrait: "Vinod had a full head of graying hair haloing down to his shoulders, peppery whiskers commencing to a salty beard, and somewhere amid all those outgrowth were once-frantic eyes that had recently, politely, extinguished themselves."
The plot turns (for better and worse) on the artistic and erotic rivalries among his characters. As the quarantine drags on, "Our Country Friend" lapses into contrived situations and scripted banter; Shteyngart holds the satire a beat too long, bordering on the precious. The politics are messy, faithfully reflecting these Disunited States, but he can't quite quell his impulse to editorialize. While his choice of an omniscient narrator allows him room to maneuver, drama leaks from the narrative.
And yet his delight in his own sentences is contagious; his gimlet-eyed optimism lifts us up. "Our Country Friends" is ultimately a generous book. As Shteyngart notes of his protagonists, "Masha and Senderovsky lay in bed in the Petersburg bungalow, listening to the sheets of rain steel-drumming the expensive new roof. Country rain. Dacha rain. It still meant something to Masha. Instinctively, as if this was 1983 ... Even back then he was a source of entertainment for her, a 'one-man clown posse,' always ready with the stupid joke about babushkas and cabbage-soup farts. And still she married him. And still she loved him."
Hamilton Cain reviews fiction and nonfiction for a range of venues, including the Star Tribune, Oprah Daily, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn.
Our Country Friends
By: Gary Shteyngart.
Publisher: Random House, 336 pages, $28.