On a certain level, the plump new Gary Shteyngart novel, “Lake Success,” doesn’t work at all. It’s a road trip story about a Manhattan hedge-fund guy named Barry Cohen who chucks it all — wife, kid, $2.4 billion in assets, cellphone, credit cards, wedding ring —– and hits the American highway like Sal Paradise or Humbert Humbert or Thelma and Louise or V.S. Naipaul in “A Turn in the South.” He doesn’t ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines. He has only a few $20 bills left in his pocket. He’s a bum manqué. He takes flatulent Greyhound buses — “the Hound,” in his lingo. He sits up front, to lessen the reeking sensory overload. He’s going to find himself and lose himself and find himself again. He putt-putts across America, his heart tucked up into the overhead bin, from where it is frequently retrieved.
Barry is a mystery, a void, for reasons that slowly dawn on the reader over the course of “Lake Success.” He doesn’t spin with the centrifugal force needed to lash a big novel together. To understand why doesn’t lessen the sense of dislocation. He’s a Master of the Universe, in Tom Wolfe’s phrase, callow and awkward though desirous of affection. His idea to help disadvantaged children? He wants to give them billionaire trading cards — “Here kid,” you imagine him saying, “be best” — or expensive wristwatches they can learn to maintain. Don’t get me started on the wristwatch overload in “Lake Success.” Barry, like the author, is a watch geek. He carries a suitcase that contains at least half a dozen, and the novel unfurls an aria about each one. I began to imagine the reverential descriptions read aloud by Don Pardo, the former “Saturday Night Live” announcer, his voice a Mocha-Java blend of seriousness and ridicule. (“He was wearing his Omega Railmaster today, a sturdy, handsome piece.”) J. Peterman, call your office.
“Do you really think there’s a mind in there,” the young male supermarket cashier in John Updike’s short story “A&P” infamously asked about a cute girl, “or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?” You start to formulate a similar question about Barry. Because you’re not entirely sure you care about his random adventures on the road. This book, like a radio station whose frequency you can’t quite catch, keeps losing you. It keeps tipping over and then righting itself again, like a bottom-weighted inflatable unicorn.
“Lake Success” keeps righting itself for many reasons. First among them is that Shteyngart, perhaps more than any American writer of his generation (he’s 46), is a natural. He is light, stinging, insolent and melancholy, to borrow the words the critic Kenneth Tynan kept on his writing desk to remind himself how to sound. The wit and the immigrant’s sense of heartbreak — he was born in Russia — just seem to pour from him. The idea of riding along behind Shteyngart as he glides across America in the early age of Trump is a propitious one. He doesn’t disappoint.