Trying to grasp what would become Donald Trump's America, acclaimed novelist Gary Shteyngart took a cross-country Greyhound trip. He finished that tour with a new understanding of the United States, and a book that is steeped in horror and humor.
Shteyngart said he set out to write a very different book from what became "Lake Success."
"It was going to be an international thriller set in cities around the world," he said, "with a female protagonist, actually."
But Shteyngart became fascinated by hedge fund managers: the guys who invest other people's money with the aim of making millions. He began hanging out with them, drinking into the night with them, seeing them in the good times and the bad. He found they lived unhappy lives.
"Lives that were constantly dedicated to one-ups-manship, to proving that you were better than others just because you have been able to make more money than others," he said. "But the money didn't make anybody happy."
He kept meeting people who had lost millions, even billions, who were held in high esteem because of one huge deal pulled off in the past. That led him to create Barry Cohen, his novel's central character.
"I wanted somebody who epitomized this idea that we will give money to white men and they will just blow up over and over and we will still give them money," he said. "We will still say, 'Oh my God, you are a genius,' because at one point you made a correct bet."
Barry's fund is in free fall, his marriage is on the rocks, but Barry's pretty sure it's not his fault. He decides that what he really needs to do is track down his college girlfriend. He just knows she'll want to rekindle their love affair. To up the romance, he decides to take the bus.
Shteyngart, who grew up in Russia, said that in this country, the road trip has long been seen as a path to redemption.
"It's the American ideal, because the country is so vast you can get in any form of transportation, your car on the road, or the Greyhound in my book, and just get the heck out of Dodge and become a new person," he said. "But of course that never happens. There is no geographical solution to any of these problems."
Now, in "Lake Success," Barry is not quite sure where his old girlfriend actually lives, and he really isn't very good at handling money. He throws away his credit cards and soon begins running out of cash. And something else is happening: The country is in the runup to the 2016 presidential election.
Shteyngart got on the Greyhound himself in June 2016 to research his book. He met a lot of really great people. And he met some who truly scared him.
"Just like Barry, I met my first white supremacist," he said. "People who were speaking very loudly, I think around Louisiana, about crucifying Muslims and Jews and things like that. Speaking very angrily about a traditionally African-American college that we were passing by."
Shteyngart, who is Jewish, said he knew intellectually that such people existed, but he believes the Trump candidacy encouraged them to speak openly. His bus trip lasted three months.
"When I got on the 'hound, I thought, 'Hillary's going to win. There is no way in heck she is not going to win.' When I got off the 'hound I was looking for real estate in Toronto," he said.
Barry's ill-fated search for lost love is only part of "Lake Success." The bus trip is intertwined with the story of Seema, the wife he left behind in New York. She is a high-flying lawyer. However, their son is on the autism spectrum, and she has dedicated her life to his care. Barry's departure opens a new world of choices for her.
Shteyngart will appear at a Rain Taxi Reading Series event at Kagin Commons at Macalester College in St. Paul tonight at 7. Critics have hailed "Lake Success" as capturing the zeitgeist of Trump's America. He says that having grown up under an authoritarian system in Russia, he worries about the future, particularly now he has become a father.
"I hope that listeners don't think the book is this giant tumble into anxiety and depression," he said. "It's hopefully quite funny. But these are of course questions that somebody who grew up in the Soviet Union has to ask."
And he points to his last novel, "Super Sad True Love Story," which came out in 2010. It's a dystopian tale about an America controlled by social media. It seemed humorously outlandish at the time.
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