There is a kind of book, sometimes fiction, sometimes not, we can call “In Search of America.” John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie” is such a book. So is “On the Road,” by Jack Kerouac.
The protagonist leaves his usual place, travels, mixes with so-called ordinary people, exposes himself to situations he is not used to, listens and, we hope, learns what is going on in our enormous and enormously varied country.
Usually we like this protagonist, but in “Lake Success: A Novel, ” Gary Shteyngart has produced a hero who is hard to love, a book that is comic and distressing in equal parts.
Barry Cohen is a hedge fund manager. He has, as they say, 2.4 billion AUM — Assets Under Management. He is personally worth hundreds of millions since he takes a commission each year whether his fund prospers or not. He is a one-percenter in 2016 America, with little knowledge of how others live.
Barry and his buddies are Trump supporters, for the tax breaks they feel he will bring them.
Barry lives on Central Park West, in a gigantic apartment on the seventeenth floor with three two-sided fireplaces. Cohen is Jewish and a native New Yorker. His wife, Seema, a brilliant lawyer, is Indian.
Financially, they have it made, but they have stopped loving one another, and their son, three-year-old Shiva, has been diagnosed “on the spectrum” at the most severe end. He can’t make eye contact, mostly can’t be held, can’t communicate and will never speak.
Barry is disappointed, devastated, heartbroken.
After a small dinner party, where Barry and his host have been drinking Karuzawa scotch at $35,000 per bottle, there is a crisis, with a modicum of violence. Barry, drunk, decides to leave home, light out for the territory, go visit his college ex-girlfriend in Richmond.
Although he usually travels by chartered jet, Barry goes to Port Authority and gets on a Greyhound.
Of course, he is slumming. But to achieve authenticity, he throws away his smart phone then, not wanting to be traced, throws away his treasured Black Amex card. He will travel, on the cheap, through the underbelly of America.
As a security blanket, he takes with him six wristwatches from his very expensive collection, in a special case. Barry is easy to hate.
On the Hound, there is crowding and stink. A one-eyed Mexican man sleeps on Barry’s shoulder.
He meets and has sex with a young, beautiful African-American whom he imagines he will mentor. His wisdom: it is important to do good stuff in the world, “But first you have to have lots and lots of money.”
Barry as mentor? As Herzog, the compulsive advice-giver in Saul Bellow’s masterpiece, finally comes to realize, he hasn’t a clue.
His bus trip takes him first to Baltimore, then Richmond, then dangerous downtown Atlanta, then Birmingham, “a downtown graced by art deco but unmarred by the presence of a single human being.” There is a brief rest stop in Tuscaloosa, then on to El Paso where Layla, his college love, is now living with her son.
Back in New York, Seema is moving on, and reconciliation is unlikely.
As we watch Barry suffer, through bad luck and his own stupidity, we feel pity along with contempt. On the bus, he learns, sees poor people sharing, observes small kindnesses. The painful process that will make him into a sentient human being who can think about something besides money is slow, but, Shteyngart shows us, it can be done.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.