Idris Elba directs Yardie
“Barry Cohen, a man with $2.4bn dollars of assets under management, staggered into the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He was visibly drunk and bleeding. There was a clean slice above his left eyebrow where the nanny’s fingernail had gouged him and, from his wife, a teardrop scratch below his eye. It was 3.20am.” And with that — boom — you’re in to Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Lake Success.
As you might expect from the author of Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story, when it comes to the targets of his dark satire, the Russian-born American writer drags everyone along for the ride.
This time, his main focus is Barry, would-be Master of the Universe, whose marriage is collapsing under the strains of raising a severely autistic son, and whose fortunes have been made on investments that are proving anything but sound.
After the heated encounter with which the novel opens, Barry sets off on a dystopian Greyhound bus trip across Trump’s America in search of a college girlfriend in Texas, on a misguided one-man mission to “Make Barry Great Again”.
Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, Barry’s wife, Seema, a former lawyer and bestower of the “teardrop scratch”, is struggling to manage her son’s recent diagnosis, and her burgeoning awareness of her husband’s uselessness and moral bankruptcy, or rather, a realisation that she’d known about it all along. It’s a surprise to approximately no one when her head is turned by a smooth Guatemalan writer who lives with his wife in a neighbouring apartment, and who offers some notional escape from this life of which she’d always dreamed.
Shteyngart, however, reserves his keenest and fiercest barbs for Barry, an angry, ineffectual alpha male who finds it easier to demonstrate affection for his watch collection than for his own child. And the satirical layering is masterful: in one dizzying set-piece, Barry is accosted by a crack dealer in Baltimore, runs away in fear, only to find out the dealer is awaiting a minibus of German tourists who have come to see key locations from The Wire. Barry, emboldened, and brimming with pleasure at his own magnanimity, returns to the dealer and buys a lump of crack, which has “the sharp yellow tinge of a newborn Parmesan”. Dark — so dark — yet delicious.