Gary Shteyngart is only 41 years old and although his satirical novels — The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story — have been widely praised, there are only three of them. It might seem to be early days for a memoir.
However, if you've read any of those novels, you know there's an interesting character behind them — they're wildly funny, boldly inventive and utterly distinctive, the product of an unusual mind.
Even if you're not intrigued by the story of how an asthmatic, exuberantly eyebrowed Russian immigrant who didn't speak English at home until his teens became an award-winning American author, Shteyngart's insight, wit and honesty make Little Failure a fascinating read.
A memoir is necessarily somewhat narcissistic, but the New York-based Shteyngart avoids self-obsession with a work that's as weird and wide-ranging as his novels, not to mention a nostalgic window into growing up in the '80s from an outsider's perspective.
"Soplyak" is what his father called little Gary, back when he was known as Igor, during his first seven years in Leningrad. It means "snotty" and it's only one of the terms his conflicted father has for him ("weakling" is another).
"Failurchka," this one from his mother, means "little failure."
It's little wonder Shteyngart grew up in Queens, where his parents moved in 1979, with both something to prove and an inferiority complex. That push-pull dynamic is a hallmark of his poignant memoir, in which he takes an unflinching look at himself but also at his family, which is, like many families, deeply dysfunctional but deeply loving.
He suffers his father's physical blows and verbal barbs, but acknowledges his dad's love and his role in shaping his character — and comes to realize that his father in turn was shaped by his past.
Self-deprecation is the author's default, and he looks back with dismay and bemused affection at his life's triumphs and missteps, from his first book (Lenin and the Magic Goose — his grandmother paid him with one cheese slice for every page) to his Reagan-loving teens to his return to his birthplace as an adult in an effort to understand himself.
Lest we think Shteyngart is exaggerating his early awkwardness, his utterly un-American "otherness," he provides tragic, hilarious photos of himself, featuring wayward teeth and unfortunate fashion choices -- climbing a ladder in the "Athletic Corner" of his childhood apartment, clad in a sailor suit; preparing to attend his high school prom (solo, of course); wearing a crown at a Medieval Times restaurant.
It becomes easier to understand the skewed vision of his novels when you realize they come from someone who learned about America from TV sitcoms.
At Hebrew school (moving to the U.S. meant embracing his previously unheralded Judaism), he discovers it's better to be funny than to be smart.
"Survival will mean replacing the love of what is beautiful with the love of what is funny, humour being the last resort of the besieged Jew, especially when placed among his own kind."
Shteyngart goes from being a shining star (intellectually, if not socially) at Hebrew school to being a decidedly mediocre student at Stuyvesant High School, which grooms students for the Ivy League.
Realizing his limitations, he heads for the notably freewheeling private liberal arts college Oberlin, where he discovers booze, pot and the love of a good woman (unfortunately, it's the former that ends up having the biggest influence).
Throughout, his ambivalent relationship with his parents continues -- without them, his writing wouldn't exist, but they can't take pleasure in his success when it comes in some way at their expense -- but by the book's end, you feel he has moved past his own little failures and come to grips with his family's failings as well.
Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor.