At age 41, Gary Shteyngart seems awfully young to be writing a memoir. But readers of “Little Failure” soon discover that he's been precocious all his life.
The book is Shteyngart's funny, often moving, chronicle of his family's journey from St. Petersburg, Russia, then known as Leningrad, to the U.S. in 1979. It's also a brutally honest record of his personal transformation from fearful, sickly child to angry, self-destructive youth to professional success and mensch.
Part of the wave of Soviet refuseniks, the Shteyngarts settled in Queens, N.Y., when young Igor — Gary was the English approximation — was just 7. Soon he was packed off to Hebrew school, where he was bullied by other kids and indoctrinated with religious Zionism. For a while, his father beat him, too.
Then one day, the geeky kid, who dreamed of being a cosmonaut in Russia and inhaled Isaac Asimov almost from the moment his family landed at JFK Airport, was asked to read aloud in class from his schoolboy attempt at a science fiction story.
Classmates were enthralled, his ostracism ended and the budding young writer appeared to be well on his way to the career that would bring him great fortune. But years of turmoil lay ahead: drugs, alcohol, failed romance, bad behavior, unsuitable jobs.
Meanwhile, he was also morphing from Reagan Republican to Obama Democrat, unthinking religious partisan to critic of Israel, drunk and stoned “Scary Gary” to loving husband and son.
Shteyngart gives a big shout out to psychoanalysis — 12 years, four times a week — for helping him learn to manage his unexamined sadness and rage.
As he prepared to write this book, he went back to Russia with his parents to try to plumb the depths of their pain. The urge to write a memoir was great, he explains, because of his overwhelming fear that he would die before they did, depriving him of the chance to express his love and gratitude.
The title, “Little Failure,” is a nickname his mother bestowed on him soon after they moved to Queens. (His father called him “Snotty.”) The mocking nature illustrates what he describes throughout the book — the “supposedly funny banter with a twist of the knife.” It's an ironic title, as well, because Shteyngart, the quintessential overachieving immigrant son, has succeeded beyond any parent's wildest dreams.