IN 1979, the Russian-American writer Gary Shteyngart left the Soviet Union with his parents to settle in New York. He was seven at the time.
Little Failure: A Memoir
Hamish Hamilton, £16.99
Jimmy Carter’s America, with its rituals of down-home Christianity and pious emphasis on human rights, was often grimly inimical to foreigners. Yet the Shteyngarts found America, and American conservatism in particular, a refuge from the zealotry and anti-Semitism they had known abroad. They reinvented themselves as Americans.
In his funny, sweet-sour memoir, Shteyngart relates his family’s uprooting and their attempts to assimilate within the multi-ethnic borough of Queens. An asthmatic only child, he is prone to panic attacks and vertigo. His father, a muscle-bound engineer of robust sexual and gastronomic appetites, beats the “little failure” (failurchka) for his Woody Allen-like neuroses. No-one is more surprised or jealous when Gary becomes one of the most successful writers at work in America today. “I burn with a black envy toward you,” his father tells him.
In self-deprecating prose, Shteyngart satirises Eighties America as the decade of serious money. As President Ronald Reagan emerges as the great anti-state evangelist, the Soviet Union is seen to unravel fast and the Shteyngarts feel justified in their anti-communist animus. They are willing to adjust to everything and everybody in America (except perhaps “shvartzes”, black people) if it helps them to forget their past and become properly American.
The effort to be new clearly was exhausting. The teenage Gary is increasingly afraid of the slip in manner or speech which would betray his foreign identity. In his Miami Vice- style jacket with the sleeves partially rolled up, he publicly supports the Republican Party but listens with guilty pleasure to the Los Angeles rapper Ice Cube. For all his hard-won American confidence, he concludes that neither he nor his parents can ever really leave Russia. Their apartment remains crammed with “orange” Romanian furniture and cheap wood carvings of Leningrad.
On leaving school, he indulges in vodka benders. Alcohol becomes his salve for some inner hurt or unappeased yearning. As his attachment to Reagan wanes, so a counter-process begins: Shteyngart becomes interested in liberal New York politics, marijuana and Talking Heads. His best-selling novel Absurdistan is about to be translated into 26 languages.
Gradually, it dawns on Shteyngart that the dream of returning to Leningrad is just that: he and his parents are in America to stay. Their yearning to go back is satisfied one day in 2011 when they undertake a brief nostalgic return to St Petersburg, only to realise how completely the place has changed. Sharp, satirical, and affecting, this is a minor classic of the immigrant’s plight abroad.