Un­usual MIND

Nov­el­ist brings out­sider’s view to self-dep­re­cat­ing mem­oir

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Jill Wil­son

GARY Shteyn­gart is only 41 years old and although his satir­i­cal nov­els — The Rus­sian Debu­tante’s Hand­book, Ab­sur­dis­tan and Su­per Sad True Love Story — have been widely praised, there are only three of them. It might seem to be early days for a mem­oir. How­ever, if you’ve read any of those nov­els, you know there’s an in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter behind them — they’re wildly funny, boldly in­ven­tive and ut­terly dis­tinc­tive, the prod­uct of an un­usual mind. Even if you’re not in­trigued by the story of how an asth­matic, ex­u­ber­antly eye­browed Rus­sian im­mi­grant who didn’t speak English at home un­til his teens be­came an award­win­ning Amer­i­can au­thor, Shteyn­gart’s in­sight, wit and hon­esty make Lit­tle Fail­ure a fas­ci­nat­ing read. A mem­oir is nec­es­sar­ily some­what nar­cis­sis­tic, but the New York-based Shteyn­gart avoids self-ob­ses­sion with a work that’s as weird and wide-rang­ing as his nov­els, not to men­tion a nos­tal­gic win­dow into grow­ing up in the ’80s from an out­sider’s per­spec­tive. “So­plyak” is what his fa­ther called lit­tle Gary, back when he was known as Igor, dur­ing his first seven years in Len­ingrad. It means “snotty” and it’s only one of the terms his con­flicted fa­ther has for him (“weak­ling” is another). “Fail­urchka,” this one from his mother, means “lit­tle fail­ure.” It’s lit­tle won­der Shteyn­gart grew up in Queens, where his par­ents moved in 1979, with both some­thing to prove and an in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex. That push-pull dy­namic is a hall­mark of his poignant mem­oir, in which he takes an un­flinch­ing look at him­self but also at his fam­ily, which is, like many fam­i­lies, deeply dys­func­tional but deeply lov­ing. He suf­fers his fa­ther’s phys­i­cal blows and ver­bal barbs, but ac­knowl­edges his dad’s love and his role in shap­ing his char­ac­ter — and comes to re­al­ize that his fa­ther in turn was shaped by his past. Self-dep­re­ca­tion is the au­thor’s de­fault, and he looks back with dis­may and be­mused af­fec­tion at his life’s tri­umphs and mis­steps, from his first book ( Lenin and the Magic Goose — his grand­mother paid him with one cheese slice for ev­ery page) to his Rea­gan-lov­ing teens to his re­turn to his birth­place as an adult in an ef­fort to un­der­stand him­self. Lest we think Shteyn­gart is ex­ag­ger­at­ing his early awk­ward­ness, his ut­terly un-Amer­i­can “oth­er­ness,” he pro­vides tragic, hi­lar­i­ous pho­tos of him­self, fea­tur­ing way­ward teeth and un­for­tu­nate

— climb­ing a lad­der in the “Ath­letic Cor­ner” of his child­hood apart­ment, clad in a sailor suit; pre­par­ing to at­tend his high school prom (solo, of course); wear­ing a crown at a Me­dieval Times restau­rant. It be­comes eas­ier to un­der­stand the skewed vi­sion of his nov­els when you re­al­ize they come from some­one who learned about Amer­ica from TV sit­coms. At He­brew school (mov­ing to the U.S. meant em­brac­ing his pre­vi­ously un­her­alded Ju­daism), he dis­cov­ers it’s bet­ter to be funny than to be smart. “Sur­vival will mean re­plac­ing the love of what is beau­ti­ful with the love of what is funny, hu­mour be­ing the last re­sort of the be­sieged Jew, es­pe­cially when placed among his own kind.” Shteyn­gart goes from be­ing a shin­ing star (in­tel­lec­tu­ally, if not so­cially) at He­brew school to be­ing a de­cid­edly medi­ocre stu­dent at Stuyvesant High School, which grooms stu­dents for the Ivy League. Re­al­iz­ing his lim­i­ta­tions, he heads for the no­tably free­wheel­ing pri­vate lib­eral arts col­lege Ober­lin, where he dis­cov­ers booze, pot and the love of a good woman (un­for­tu­nately, it’s the for­mer that ends up hav­ing the big­gest in­flu­ence). Through­out, his am­biva­lent re­la­tion­ship with his par­ents continues — with­out them, his writ­ing wouldn’t ex­ist, but they can’t take plea­sure in his suc­cess when it comes in some way at their ex­pense — but by the book’s end, you feel he has moved past his own lit­tle fail­ures and come to grips with his fam­ily’s fail­ings as well.

Jill Wil­son is a Free Press copy edi­tor.

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