by Daniel Brown

Gary Shteyngart is a veritable force of nature, a whirlwind of words, anxiety, mania.  Having spent the first seven years of his life in the old Soviet Union, in Leningrad, he and his parents emigrated to America during Carter’s presidency.  Carter traded grain to the Soviet Union in trade for letting millions of Jews and some Christian fundamentalists leave, mainly for America and for Israel.  Shteyngart’s new book, a memoir to date, follows the family history through his eyes, from the age of awareness until the publication of three novels, and now this memoir.

You have to combine the best of the old Jewish comics from the Catskill Mountain days with pieces of Philip Roth and the heyday of the American Jewish novelists in the sixties and seventies to get a sense of Shteyngart’s self-deprecating and much exaggerated sense of humor, as well as his love affair with words, bearing in mind that English is not his first language, but one he has mastered with the exuberance of the genius he clearly is.  The book begins with his life in Leningrad, with a mother who dotes on him, and a father who sometimes does, but of whom little Igor, later Gary, is often afraid.  Two doting grandmothers basically fill in the family of origin, both in the Soviet Union, and later in America.  Part of the brilliance of this memoir is Shteyngart’s ability to tell his story, that of a hyper-sensitive and only child, while also telling the back story of his parents as he sees them as a child, and, much later, as adults when he becomes one.  Anyone inclined to see his or her childhood from the perspective of a victim who is frequently bullied, will appreciate the loneliness and isolation Shteyngart feels from the beginning, in both countries.  He believes that his parents hate each other, are abusive to each other, and that a divorce is always imminent, though one never occurs.  His mother begins to call him “Little Failure”, from around the age of three or four, onwards, but only as an adult will Shteyngart understand the complexity of motive and the love underneath their seemingly constant fighting.  By the time he is in high school, his mother will become his great advocate, his mother tiger, while the father remains distant, building a new life in a strange country, which a child can never understand.

In America, the Shteyngarts begin in a tiny apartment in Queens, with a variety of relatives all living together in two and one half rooms.  Privacy is thus non-existent, and our precocious young Gary filters everything he hears through the lens of his sense of victimhood, of being unloved.  Shteyngart selects the Hebrew school he attends as his first rite of passage, where he has no friends, but takes pride in being the second most hated kid in school, and bullies the most hated along with the best of them (the Israeli immigrants are considered the top of the line).  As the family upgrades its housing Gary will be sent to a high school for math and science geniuses, though his writing has begun, and he probably wastes six years, but does make some friends and occasionally dates.  He goes to Oberlin for college, where his antics continue, nearly always over the top, unbelievably hilarious; a few people respond to him, but we Americans would see him as suffering from a total lack of self-esteem.  Shteyngart’s memoir is mainly about that lack, and the post-college man will see a psychiatrist, to whom the book is partly dedicated.

You will rarely read a more poignant, bittersweet, and often floor-poundingly funny book, and it’s that peculiar combination of ingredients that makes it so brilliant and so readable.  He makes us root for him, while we often want to smack him: we are observing a genius develop, a mind of commanding brilliance, who uses humor in a nearly classic Jewish manner, as survival technique and a way of courting friends.

As more teachers recognize his brilliance as a writer, his career begins to take off quickly and surprisingly.  But the denouement of the book occurs when he and his parents go back to Leningrad together, and they let him know them with all their quirks, their own hurts and oddities, so that back in his country of origin, on the streets where he played as a child, and the family looks for and finds dead relatives from World War II in a small cemetery, that Shteyngart grows up and understands that his version of the family odyssey has been wrong all along, except for the individual anecdotes that make him who he is.

Little Failure is, thus, one of the most psychologically sophisticated and revealing books of our time, and because it includes the immigrant story within it, the book moves from a very good one to nearly a masterpiece.  To read it is to laugh a lot, to be impatient with psychology, and to understand how deep the roots of love are planted.

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