What if Dean Moriarty, the free-spirited hipster from “On the Road,” was a hedge-fund manager on the run from his investors and the SEC? What if Humbert Humbert, the silver-tongued pedophile at the crooked heart of “Lolita,” took a Greyhound bus across America in 2016 as Trumpism took hold?
And what if Gary Shteyngart noticed that his friends — “writers, graphic designers, architects, academics, and journalists — the heart of what used to be the creative middle class,” as he described them in The New Yorker — were being priced out of Manhattan and Brooklyn by financiers who think middle class means an annual income of $2 million to $4 million?
Shteyngart, the author of “Absurdistan” and “Super Sad True Love Story,” is an observant writer who knows what to do when a good idea smacks him in the face: Get up and start asking questions, then get out and hit the highway. His new novel “Lake Success” combines the passive-aggressive takeover of New York by the Bros of Wall Street — a subject worthy of Tom Wolfe — with a road novel that echoes Kerouac’s buzzy restlessness and Nabokov’s sly observations. It’s Shteyngart’s best book, a deeper dive into what’s happening now with a plaintive edge that fits the moment.
“Lake Success” opens like every Tom Cruise movie, with the hero on the run. Barry Cohen, “a man with 2.4 billion dollars in assets under management,” stumbles into the Port Authority Bus Terminal, drunk and bleeding. He’s fleeing a domestic blowout, a disastrous dinner party with the downstairs neighbors followed by his wife and nanny attacking him after he disturbed the fragile sleep of his autistic son. He dumps his phone in a trash can and sets off to look for an old girlfriend and his younger, better self and maybe look for America the way Simon & Garfunkel did in that song, only with a rollerboard of vintage watches instead of a pack of cigarettes.
What he finds is picaresque and oddly reassuring, starting with a group of German tourists visiting West Baltimore to see where “The Wire” was filmed and continuing through an assortment of kindnesses from fellow passengers on “the Hound.” At every stop on the journey, Shteyngart’s comic touch is as well-timed as a Patek Philippe Aquanaut: “Like your first ankle-monitor bracelet or your fourth divorce, the occasional break with reality was an important part of any hedge-fund titan’s biography.”
Back in Manhattan, Cohen’s wife Seema is adjusting just fine to life without the hedge-fund titan. It helps that she has a small village of nannies and tutors and therapists to raise 3-year-old Shiva, but her dilemma feels more real than her husband’s cartoonish self-regard and her reactions to her son’s autism are heartbreaking. Alternating chapters was a smart choice by Shteyngart that grounded his novel in Seema’s world and kept it from spinning into a farcical bus trip to nowhere.
“Do bankers have imagination?” Shteyngart wrote in a New Yorker profile of Michael Novogratz, a defrocked hedge-fund king and a real-life version of Barry Cohen. The evidence, based on “Lake Success,” is yes, they do, but only if someone as talented as Shteyngart is around to provide it for them.
“Lake Success” by Gary Shteyngart; Random House, 358 pp; $28
Gary Shteyngart will read from “Lake Success” at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 10, at Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway; $35 (includes copy of book), elliottbaybook.com
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