W's arts and culture director savors Gary Shteyngart's poignant and ribald memoir.
Leave it to Gary Shteyngart, the author of such ribald novels as Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story, to write what might just be the funniest, most unflinching memoir ever about coming to America. Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in the waning years of the Cold War. He was a small asthmatic, imaginative 5-year-old boy, whose grandmother paid him a slice of cheese for every page he wrote of his first novel, Lenin and His Magical Goose. As he recounts in hilarious, shimmering detail in Little Failure (Random House), life changes dramatically when his family immigrates to Queens, New York. There, Gary swings between a stolid Soviet home life and wildly confusing American aspirations. (In one of the book’s most poignant scenes, the family cheers its luck at receiving a $10 million dollar check in the mail from Publisher’s Clearing House before Gary’s parents learn the harsh truth from coworkers.) Meanwhile, his mother dubs him Failurchka (little failure)—a moniker Shteyngart tries to shake as he attempts to fit in, find love, and develop his own voice. This memoir is his victory lap.