Title of author's memoir belies his continued success

Cox NewspapersJanuary 16, 2014 

There has been a thread circulating lately on Facebook in which devoted readers ask one another to name the 10 books that have been the most influential in their lives. Having been asked, I really cannot respond.

So many great books, so many wonderful writers. Where would I begin?

I'm frequently asked to name my favorite book or writer. Once again, I cannot begin to narrow it down to just one all-time favorite.

All the time I could expend in making these decisions is better spent reading more books. So that's what I'll do instead: read.

Every four years, Gary Shteyngart publishes another book. It's tempting to call him my favorite author. Shteyngart's three previous books — The Russian Debutante's Handbook (2002), Absurdistan (2006) and Super Sad True Love Story (2010) — were all novels. Last year I heard he was writing a memoir. I couldn't wait to read it.

The author was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), in the former Soviet Union. When Gary was 7 years old, his family was allowed to move to the United States. This occurred during the Carter administration. A diplomatic swap of sorts had been made; many Jewish citizens of the U.S.S.R. were allowed to emigrate after it was agreed to ship the Soviets large quantities of our surplus grain.

Shteyngart's novels are rambunctiously humorous. Each one seems to contain autobiographical elements from the author's life. In his new memoir, Little Failure (Random House, $27), the author clues his readers in to many of the life experiences that ended up surfacing in his fiction.

If you are a fan of his previous work, be warned. There is plenty of his usual self-deprecating humor in this memoir, but it is toned down. Here's why: The author is an only child, and this is very much his family history. There's a lot in here about his mother, father and grandmothers.

He has an excellent memory. He recalls things that happened before the family moved to Queens in New York City. He has been making regular trips back to Russia to refresh his memories. Apparently, both of his parents were nervous to know their son would be writing about their personal lives.

He takes us along on this expedition. He was a sickly, timid child with terrible asthma. There were significant dramas in his parents' marriage. The son found himself becoming an intermediary whenever his parents were fighting.

While his father didn't see how becoming a writer could ever promise him much of a future, Shteyngart's grandmothers were supportive. When he was still in Leningrad, one grandmother would give him a slice of cheese whenever the boy completed another page in the book he was writing at age 6.

Little Failure follows the jagged trek of an insecure youth who wanted only to be loved. He went from being the second-most hated kid at his Hebrew school to winning a scholarship to Oberlin, where he acquired the moniker "Scary Gary."

He admits he did crazy things. Extensive psychoanalysis has helped. A famous novelist became his angel by helping Shteyngart land his first book deal.

This Little Failure deserves to be a huge success. Maybe someday soon his parents actually will read it.

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