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Novelist Gary Shteyngart takes a hard look at his family, his past and the sweaters of America

In his memoir, Little Failure, this satirist becomes himself, and earns some painful laughter along the way.

Photograph: Brigitte Lacomb
Gary Shteyngart
Read this author’s memoir and it becomes clear: The name Gary Shteyngart wasn’t given, it was earned. As a child in Leningrad during the Brezhnev era, he was known as Igor Shteyngart. After he emigrated to the U.S., unkind Hebrew-school classmates hurled “Red Gerbil” and other jabs his way because of his accent and homeland. Desperate to make friends, he adopted a variant of the name of a character from ’80s kids’ show The Great Space Coaster, Gary Gnu. Later, as he tested out newfound freedoms (and three-foot bongs) at Oberlin College, he went by Scary Gary. Through it all, he thought of himself as a lovable bumbler in the mold of the protagonist from Gilligan’s Island. But when he published his first book, the writer finally felt at home in his own skin. “In a way,” says Shteyngart, “that’s when Igor and all the other monikers went away, and I became Gary Shteyngart.”

Though this is Shteyngart’s first autobiography, the central journey of an immigrant becoming an American echoes throughout his satirical fiction thanks to such characters as Absurdistan’s Misha Vainberg—who, fattened by American abundance, returns to St. Petersberg after his rich father dies—and Super Sad True Love Story’s lovelorn Lenny Abramov, the son of Russian immigrants. In The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, many aspects of Vladimir Girshkin’s story closely mirror Shtetyngart’s own—a point Shteyngart repeatedly cops to in his latest book.

In Little Failure, however, the scenes of familial strife, growing pains and personal transgression are served as raw as his father’s famous garlic sandwiches. “Satire is fun, but it puts up a lot of little screens,” says Shteyngart. “With this, there are not screens; it’s just full-on pain.” To wit: One of his father’s mottos roughly translates to, “He who does not hit, does not love,” and Papa proves this to his little “Snotty”. After being badgered by classmates and his parents, the young Shteyngart takes out his aggression on the only kids weaker and smaller than he is—the universally reviled schoolmate who says little more than, “Agoof!” for instance. In later chapters, the author does not flinch as he depicts himself alternately high as a kite, throwing himself at a paramour with a boyfriend and bullying his New York benefactor.

Which is not to say that the stories are not heartfelt or without their share of humor; there are, in fact, many tender moments and laughs that accompany each and every harsh truth. There’s a touching scene in which his longtime girlfriend convinces the skittish Shteyngart to slow dance, and the book ends as he and his parents acknowledge the weight of their family's history while in Russia. During just about everything else that happens, from his terrifying lessons in Hebrew school to paying his mother for chicken cutlets, the reader will be forgiven for laughing. For whatever reason—his parents’ mordant banter, the bleak early years filled with bullies, his Jewish heritage, the unsuccessful attempts at standing out—Shteyngart sees the world through Groucho glasses. Even his parents’ awkward, translated curses—“Go to the dick!” they holler at one another—are funny.

Spanning nearly all of Shteyngart’s life (he’s in his early 40s), Little Failure feels like a naturalized immigrant’s bildungsroman. Coming-of-age stories don't consider their protagonists' middle ages, generally, but it takes time for the bewildered, uprooted boy to become his own sort of man. Beyond the nuts and bolts of the storytelling, each of the book’s themes reflect some aspect of the writer’s growth: He comes of age, and then some. He embraces American life while quietly yearning for lost moments of his past and abandoned homeland. He sidesteps self-medicated obliteration and learns to channel his creative impulses. He finds acceptance where circumstances have always made him feel unappreciated, and success where he felt inadequate. And there is also forgiveness and love. Within him, there’s the immigrant, the son, the child, the rebel, the writer, the madman and the lover; by the time he winds up back in New York City to see the publication of Russian Debutante, he’s ready to just be Gary. But for anyone seeking an easy catharsis, Shteyngart is quick to point out that none of this provided him the “rehabilitating functions that Americans think [memoirs] do.”

“No one sits down, writes their memoir and becomes a changed person,” says Shteyngart. “I’m still the failure I was before, but with better sweaters.”

Gary Shteyngart reads from Little Failure at Barnes & Noble Union Square Mon 20. He's also hosting a dinner at Calliope on January 26.