Gary Shteyngart boarded a Greyhound bus in summer 2016 as research for his latest novel, Lake Success — a journey that his protagonist, the hedge fund manager Barry Cohen, would take as well. He wanted to learn about the America between the coasts. Shteyngart’s cross-country Greyhound trip lasted four months and included stops at eight cities, including Raleigh, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; and El Paso, Texas.
The resulting book is a critical and humanizing portrait of the people who work in Wall Street, as well as an insightful view about what Americans were feeling leading up to the 2016 election.
Shteyngart, who immigrated to the US from Russia, is the best-selling author of Super Sad True Love Story, Little Failure, and other works that frequently take aim at elite American culture. His latest novel is equally critical of Wall Street, rural America, and liberal writers. Cohen, the protagonist, grew up blue-collar, married a first-generation Indian woman, and “considered himself entirely self-made,” a rationalization he uses throughout the book to justify his work in the financial sector.
When I asked Shteyngart why he wanted to explore the idea of being self-made in America, he told me, “I saw many people in finance who would say, ‘I hate Occupy Wall Street, all these people. They don’t know how hard I work’ — as if hard work was the justification for everything that they do.”
I spoke to Shteyngart about what being an American means to him, his thoughts on Russia’s involvement in American politics, and why you, too, should get on a Greyhound bus.
Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Your story begins with Cohen tossing his cellphone and wallet into the trash and boarding a Greyhound bus. Is the Greyhound an equalizer for Americans?
I think the East Coast or West Coast existence is a very particular kind of existence. We really are protected from what life is like for most people in this country. I think the Greyhound is, as you said, the great equalizer. You get on and a whole world opens up. Every single type of person was on the bus. It was an eye-opener. Some of those people were horrifying; I met white supremacists along the way, just as Barry meets them during his trip. In 2016, it gave me a clearer snapshot of this country than almost anything I’d ever done.
By the time I got off the bus, in the summer of 2016, I wasn’t sure Hillary [Clinton] was going to win. It was my first inkling that things might not go the way everybody thought they were going to go. Get on that bus is my advice.
What did Barry learn from traveling on the Greyhound? Do you think he got an accurate picture of the country?
By the time he gets off the Greyhound, I don’t think Barry has learned very much. He wanted to have this experience that he could talk about. The next thing you see, he’s at a posh hedge fund party on Central Park West and he’s talking about his experience. Because so much of what people who are really wealthy try to do is capture some sense of authenticity — so they’ll fly to some poor village in Uzbekistan and hang out with the baker and something like that.
Barry kind of does that. But after a certain number of years have passed, the experience starts to catch up with him. It’s not that he learns; it’s almost like a sense of harm reduction. “Do no harm,” as they say. He, hopefully, becomes this less harmful person.
Many people on the left are critical of Wall Street, of people like Barry. Yet you were able to turn him into a somewhat sympathetic character. Do you think the Wall Street critics are missing something?
No, I don’t think so. I think they’ve got it right about what [the finance industry] does to the world, the inequality they create. To the way they generate income, very loosely taxed income for a very small number of people — obviously it’s a zero-sum game in some ways, and it takes money away from other people.
The challenge I pose to myself is how do you write about somebody who has his own hedge fund for whom you can still, toward the end of the book, capture a glimmer of this humanity? Look, Barry’s not Pol Pot exactly, but at the same time, he has very few redeeming qualities.
Mostly, it’s a book about self-delusion. The way Barry perceives himself — socially liberal, fiscally conservative — is so at odds with the footprint that he actually leaves upon the world. The book is an examination of that. My biggest dream is that somebody comes up to me after reading it and says, “You know, I work in finance and I read your book and I love it. Maybe I should try something else.” That would be the icing on the cake.
Barry’s neighbor Luis Goodman, a writer, is also subject to scrutiny in the novel. He turns out to be a narcissist who makes huge fees giving talks at universities. During dinner one night, Barry asks him, “How do you monetize your art?” As a writer yourself, how do you view that scene?
The book takes place all over the country, but in many ways it’s a satire and a put-down of a certain branch of a certain New York society, which includes hedge funders, media people, successful novelists like Luis. Everyone is almost a part of the same problem. Obviously, someone like Luis does a lot less harm than Barry. But Luis also is on the make culturally, economically, and every way possible. Barry lacks a self-awareness, but Luis has this self-awareness, and he uses it for ends that are not necessarily great.
The people I met on my journey across this country, the people that I loved and whose lives seemed the most balanced, were people who didn’t live in New York or San Francisco. They lived in slower communities where they actually made a difference, where they lived middle-class lives but they actually participated in their communities — professors at public universities is an example. People working with the first generation of working-class groups. Of course, you can work and teach in a community in New York and have a similar experience.
New York is a corrupting city in many ways. The proximity to this kind of wealth, I think, takes away some sense of reality and authenticity from good people too.
What does the American dream mean to these characters? What does it mean to you?
In the book, there’s not much American dream left as Barry goes across the country. He doesn’t encounter very much. It’s sort of the leftovers of the American dream. The book says the American dream exists only for this urban, chiefly New York, perhaps Silicon Valley sliver of society where somebody can make enough of an outside income that there’s hope for the next generation and for the generation after that.
Barry’s clinging to the remnants of the American dream, but he’s still under the illusion that everything’s hunky-dory in America — that the rest of the country still has a chance. Meanwhile, people like him and his wife and their colleagues are hogging all of the opportunity.
There’s this constant feeling of, “Well, I’ve worked so hard and it’s a meritocracy, and that’s why I achieved so much.” I think you hear this a lot from people [in] finance and other fields. But I think the book in some ways deflates this idea that it’s a meritocracy. Barry meets a fellow, a former hedge funder named Jeff Park, who says, “Look, you got lucky and you were in the right place at the right time. You’re a white guy. That’s how you got to where you are.”
Going back to the immigrant experience, this [came] to the surface in a really dramatic way when the Trump administration separated immigrant children from their families at the border, which was later reversed. A recent federal filing stated that 565 children are still separated from their families. What are your thoughts on that, especially as an immigrant yourself?
That may be the gravest sort of thing that America could ever experience — the idea that it is no longer a country welcoming to immigrants. We’ve had this before as well. There’s been many times in American history where people have stood up and complained about the Irish, the Jews, the Italians, etc. This is just a part of who we are. But having children ripped out of the hands of their parents is something that, in modern history, shows a kind of anger and aggressiveness that’s always been there but was never in direct power.
We’re a violent country. We always have been. There’s always people who have been hurt and killed. Large parts of this country are loving it. They love the idea that parents and children are being separated and sent home and all of this stuff. Even as this country relies on labor from Mexico and Central America for everything. Even in the rural counties, so much of the hard work that nobody else will do — agricultural work, handiwork, all of it — is being done by people from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
It’s just this incredible burst of anger that as an adult, I’ve certainly never thought would happen in this country.
Another major issue in current politics is the ongoing Russia investigation. How do you see this, as a Russian immigrant yourself?
I was raised as a Republican kid, and Russia was considered the most dangerous country in the world [by both parties]. But the fact that the [Republicans] changed, they’ve shifted their opinion so radically and are now supporting the right-wing regime of Russia, is really just amazing and so cynical. There’s no greater danger right now than Russia’s influence across the world.
You know, in a way, they were able to accomplish what they could never accomplish during the Cold War. Of course, there was always what they called active measures and ways to influence the Western world to create divisions and schisms. But this time, they nailed it. They couldn’t have nailed it, I think, without the existence of social media, without those channels. They finally found the technology that most matches their methods of disinformation.
Seema, Barry’s wife, says she wants to be “a little less American” because she believes America is “dying.” Is that an extreme view?
You basically have a ban that’s been approved by the Supreme Court against people of a certain religion. Today it’s Muslims. Tomorrow, it’s somebody else. Remember, until 1965, there were laws like limits to immigration from Asia. For a while, it seemed like we were becoming a society that could appreciate people from everywhere. But the multiculturalism really centered in specific parts of the country. It didn’t extend throughout. Now we see the backlash to that — but if that changes, people will go somewhere else.
People forget that societies rise and fall. The idea that America was a superpower for 100 years — who’s to say it’s destined to be a superpower for the next 200 years or 100 years or 10 years? Everything that’s being done now is being done to dismantle our position in the world.
Do you struggle with your own American identity?
My parents did one right thing, for sure, which was they took me out of Russia when things got bad. [In America,] we all know right now we’re on the path of authoritarianism. There’s no question about it, with certain authoritarian tendencies already kicking in. When does one leave?
It’s not easy, as my own experience shows. It’s not easy to be an immigrant for the adults or the children involved. But one thing I know is that now that I have a kid; I don’t want to raise them in a society that I wouldn’t admire.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Vox, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @hope_reese.