Before he was Gary, he was Igor. Born in Leningrad, sickly and asthmatic like the Soviet society as it entered its own death throes, his family emigrated to the US in 1979 as part of a deal struck between Brezhnev and Carter that lifted a long enforced limbo for Soviet Jews in exchange for wheat. As Shteyngart puts it, "Russia gets the grain it needs to run; America gets the Jews it needs to run: all in all, an excellent trade deal".
His Russian relatives already in America explain in letters that, yes, "the streets are paved with gold. We can sell leather jackets at the flea market!" but it isn't easy. He is an anxious boy in a country that he was taught was the enemy, raised by parents who fought constantly, and who put tremendous pressure on him to succeed, Harvard Law being their ultimate goal for him. He works hard and gets good grades but he drinks like a Russian and smokes dope like Tommy Chong. Most of all, he feels completely unloved.
At a young age, his beloved grandmother, who was left behind in Russia (another super sad true love story) plied him with sandwiches in exchange for stories. This was a love he sought the rest of his life and so stories have always poured out of him. His father is jealous of him, his mother lacks compassion and Gary is lost.
Naturally, I expected it to be very funny, and it certainly is, screamingly so at times, but the real power is in the pain that is inflicted and dealt with and not dealt with that makes Little Failure a bitter yet rewarding pill throughout its nearly 400 pages.
Face it: we all think we are honest with ourselves and, truth be told, it's bullshit. As I try to write pieces other than blog entries, it is my own lack of honesty that prevents me from getting anywhere beyond writing about the works of others. So it goes for me but my admiration for Shteyngart rose considerably as a result of this book. He was a goob and a rube and he smelled funny. He was teased and bullied and ignored. Who wants to revisit these pains and indignities? And who in hell would want to tell the world? These days, every book reviewer and jacket copy writer describes damn near every memoir as "unflinchingly honest" but it was this honesty that made me angry and made me cry for little Igor.
Little Failure is a love letter to America, to Russia, and to his parents. If you've read any or all of Shteyngarts' three novels, you know how funny and smart his writing is and you'll appreciate his memoir knowing what to expect. If you haven't, reading the memoir will lead you to the novels so you win no matter what. Say what you will about Eggers but I think this is actually a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Like Eggers, that's overselling it just a skosh but it's damned close.