Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Lost Boy from Leningrad Pinpoints the Immigrant's Plight Abroad

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Lost Boy from Leningrad Pinpoints the Immigrant's Plight Abroad

Article excerpt

Byline: IAN THOMSON

LITTLE FAILURE: A MEMOIR by Gary Shteyngart (Hamish Hamilton, PS16.99) AMERICA has along and noble tradition of sheltering casualties in a totalitarian age. In 1979, the Russian-American writer Gary Shteyngart left the Soviet Union with his parents to settle in New York. He was seven at the time. Jimmy Carter's America, with its rituals of down-home Christianity and pious emphasis on human rights, was often grimly inimical to foreigners. Yet the Shteyngarts found America, and American conservatism in particular, a refuge from the zealotry and anti-Semitism they had known abroad. They reinvented themselves as Americans.

In his funny, sweet-sour memoir, Little Failure, Shteyngart relates the ordeal of his family's uprooting and their attempts to assimilate within the multi-ethnic borough of Queens. The author, an asthmatic only child, is prone to panic attacks and vertigo. His father, a musclebound engineer of robust sexual and gastronomic appetites, physically beats the "little failure" (failurchka) for his Woody Allenlike neuroses and despairs of a bright American future for him. No one is more surprised or jealous when the weedy-seeming Gary becomes one of the most successful writers at work in America today. "I burn with a black envy toward you," his father tells him.

In his trademark self-deprecating prose, Shteyngart satirises Eighties America as the decade of serious money. As President Reagan emerges as the great anti-state evangelist, the Soviet Union is seen to unravel fast and the Shteyngarts feel justified in their anticommunist animus. They are willing to adjust to everything and everybody in America (except perhaps "shvartzes", black people) if it helps them to forget their past and become properly American. It does not suit their purpose to be reminded of what they had been saved from a Russia humiliated and defiled by years of post-Stalinist politics. …

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