Having enjoyed the over-the-top humor of his Absurdistan and especially Super Sad True Love Story, I was drawn to Gary Shteyngart’s memoir. I remember hearing in an interview for the book that after many years of self-destructive behavior, his work with an analyst changed his life. Well, you have to love a redemption story. And it is that, but redemption is a long slog away from page 1, though not as long for the reader as it was for all those who have loved this man.
He was born in the Soviet Union and lived in Leningrad until he was 6 years old when his parents immigrated to the US (thanks to the Jimmy Carter grain policy). The moment he arrived in the West, his life changed when his severe asthma was treated and he could breathe freely for the first time. But otherwise he remained mired in his misery. He hated his Hebrew school in Queens, his parents continued their fear-ridden lives, his parents’ pet name for him really is “Little Failure,” and it goes on. He copes with being ridiculed for his Russian accent by becoming the clown and by writing. When he is accepted into the prestigious Stuyvesant, he discovers the cool kids and begins his long over use of drugs and alcohol. His descriptions of all this are exhausting, but of course, funny. I would add, however, that he writes lovingly of both his grandmothers.
After graduating from Oberlin, he returned to New York and continued writing. His long time friend and mentor John finally became weary of loaning him money and keeping him going. Shteyngart quotes the long letter John wrote when he decided to make one last effort to get him on a better path. He loaned him money on the condition that he begin seeing a psychotherapist 4 days a week and that has saved his life.
This memoir is searingly honest about himself and his parents and for that you have to admire him. He’s brilliant but as I said before, exhausting.
Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure, Random House, 2014, 369 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries, as well as Amazon.