His delightful debut novel, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” (2002) — which recounts the bumbling efforts of a Russian émigré trying to buy himself a slice of the American Dream — showcased his antic sense of humor and his ebullient, idiomatic prose, while his futuristic 2010 novel, “Super Sad True Love Story,” revealed his ability to combine sharp-edged satire with deeper, more heartfelt meditations on love and loss and mortality.
Mr. Shteyngart’s evocative new memoir, “Little Failure,” is as entertaining as it’s moving, and it underscores the autobiographical sources of his fiction. His heroes tend to share not only his self-esteem issues and biting wit, but also his appreciation of the absurdities of life on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. He gives us a visceral sense of what it was like to be uprooted as a child from the monochromatic world of the U.S.S.R. and plunked down in 1979, in the perplexing and gloriously Technicolor world of the U.S. of A. In doing so, he poignantly conveys his parents’ hard-fought efforts to make new lives for themselves in America, while using humor to chronicle his own difficulties in trying to bridge the dislocations of two cultures.
Mr. Shteyngart tells us how he and his parents obtained exit visas from the Soviet Union, packed their possessions into two green sacks and three orange suitcases and made their way to New York. He also makes us understand the strict ground rules of his parents’ frugal, cautious existence in the States:
“My parents don’t spend money,” he observes, “because they live with the idea that disaster is close at hand, that a liver-function test will come back marked with a doctor’s urgent scrawl, that they will be fired from their jobs because their English does not suffice.”
On a car trip, they take their own food (soft-boiled eggs wrapped in tin foil, Russian beet salad, cold chicken) into a McDonald’s; they help themselves to the free napkins and straws while spurning the 69 cent hamburgers as an unnecessary extravagance.
After considerable family discussion, the young Mr. Shteyngart’s birth name, Igor, is changed to Gary, because “Igor is Frankenstein’s assistant, and I have enough problems already” fitting in, and because Gary summons pleasant associations with the actor Gary Cooper. Although the newly minted Gary tries hard to espouse his father’s conservative Republican politics, he still finds himself becoming the “second-most-hated” boy in Hebrew school in Queens, mocked as “the Red Gerbil” for coming from “the country our new president will soon declare to be the ‘Evil Empire.’ ”
Gary also finds he has a decidedly different cultural vocabulary from that of his classmates. Without a television set at home, he spends his free time reading Chekhov stories — eight battered volumes of his collected works sit on the family bookshelves — but quickly learns that “these little porkers” at school “have very little interest in ‘Gooseberries’ or ‘Lady With Lapdog.’ ” It will be many years before his parents get a proper TV — a miraculous 27-inch Sony Trinitron — and, in the meantime, Mr. Shteyngart says, he takes to studying TV Guide in an effort to learn more about the alien American culture he yearns to join.
The title of this book, Mr. Shteyngart tells us, comes from a nickname his mother gave him, “Failurchka, or Little Failure.” Little Failure because his grades at Stuyvesant High School weren’t good enough to get him into an Ivy League college, which means his family “may as well have never come here.” Little Failure because it quickly became clear that he was intent on becoming a writer, instead of pursuing the vocation his parents envisioned. (“Everyone knows that immigrant children have to go into law, medicine, or maybe that strange new category known only as ‘computer.’ ”) Little Failure because he spent his youth “as a kind of tuning fork for my parents’ fears, disappointments, and alienation,” and because he was expected as a boy to succeed quickly and wildly in “a country we thought of as magical, but whose population did not strike us as being especially clever.”