NOVEMBER 19, 2018
THE ONLY TIME I’ve ridden on a Greyhound bus was in 2012, en route to New Hampshire to watch the primaries unfold. The trip itself was uneventful, and in electoral time it feels as if it happened eons ago. I may believe you if you tell me that the Republicans’ choice of Mitt Romney as their presidential nominee occurred in an age before air travel. I may even agree to take buses exclusively from now on if it means there will be a saner politics waiting at the end of the road.
Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success is a novel centered on Americans’ nostalgia for the Greyhound bus. But it’s also a novel that skewers us for that nostalgia. Long-haul bus rides may seem the perfect vehicle for post-partisan populism. The Greyhound, we may imagine, combines beatnik fantasies with Middle America geography as it transports those too poor to buy a plane ticket and too down on their luck to be politically correct. But anyone who gets aboard the Greyhound to live out a sociological experiment rather than to simply secure an affordable ride from point A to point B is probably carrying some baggage of his own. This is certainly the case with Barry Cohen in Lake Success.
Barry is a hedge-fund manager who, like Martin Shkreli, has gotten fantastically rich off of corrupt Big Pharma deals. He’s running from the law, though he doesn’t admit that’s what he’s up to. His more immediate reason for buying a bus ticket and tossing his black Amex card is that his wife, Seema, and his nanny have just gouged his face after a fight with the neighbors in their Central Park West penthouse. Neither Barry nor Seema is ready to confront the fact that no amount of money can buy off their son’s autism diagnosis. Instead Barry cursed out the neighbors for having the sort of “neurotypical” three-year-old who can perform all the verses of “I’m a Little Bumblebee” at a dinner party. Now he’s fleeing through Baltimore; Richmond, Virginia; Atlanta; and El Paso, Texas, on an impromptu search for his college girlfriend.
Shteyngart’s allusions are aggressive. While traveling, Barry contemplates writing about his journey in the style of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), “but in thoughtful middle-aged prose.” Instead of President Donald Trump’s “small hands,” Barry has small wrists, and he obsessively collects designer watches to compensate. Barry’s fund is named This Side of Capital, and after that fails, he starts another called Last Tycoon Capital. Lest we miss the references, Shteyngart reveals that F. Scott Fitzgerald is Barry’s favorite author.
At the same time, it’s easy to imagine a man of Barry’s narcissism making it clear that he graduated from Princeton University by cornering someone at a high-status party to tell tales of acquaintances who once performed with the Triangle Club. Barry realizes he can’t brag to the Greyhound passengers in quite the same way, but he finds other outlets for his ego-driven ambitions. He dreams up schemes for an “Urban Watch Fund” to teach kids the mechanics of Rolexes and turn the youth of Baltimore into “stakeholders.” He mulls launching a hedge fund in Mississippi (“Absalom Investments”) and posing under a magnolia tree for a photo op as part of a Wall Street Journal story.
As satire, Lake Success is brilliant, yet Shteyngart seems to be reaching for something more. The book plays out in two parts broken around Trump’s election. The first half, which begins with a drunken Barry stumbling into the Port Authority Bus Terminal “at the start of the First Summer of Trump,” is a more entertaining read. Barry encounters various strangers, such as the Baltimore drug dealer he thinks may make a decent business partner; the beautiful Marriott employee in Jackson, Mississippi, who becomes the first black woman he’s ever slept with; and Barry’s personal favorite, the “one-eyed Mexican man [who] fell asleep on my shoulder!” But they are merely props on Barry’s personal stage rather than people who offer real insight about life outside Manhattan. The travails of the Greyhound ride get tedious and, predictably, Barry’s marriage comes to an end.
The latter half of the book is then tinged with guilt that we could ever find a man like Barry funny. Shteyngart emphasizes that Barry and his fellow plutocrats are responsible for our present political mess and that no road trip through the heartland can assuage that. Not only is Barry not as funny as we’d hoped, he lacks the modicum of self-reflection needed to pull off a narrative arc. Narcissists make for lousy presidents and off-putting protagonists — 350 pages is a long time to spend with such self-centered New Yorkers.
Barry’s wife is a deeply conflicted woman who is well aware that she traded in her Yale Law degree to become a trophy wife. Seema contemplates joining the Hillary campaign or working part time at Planned Parenthood, yet she enjoys the ease of Barry’s wealth, if only because it pays for her daytime trysts with a semi-famous Guatemalan novelist at the Gramercy Park Hotel. But Shteyngart’s message is less about the contradictions of feminist one-percenters than about the sort of men they marry. It’s high-powered men, Shteyngart maintains, who can’t have it all. Barry wants to live as a rich Manhattanite who can nevertheless take solace in having once completed a creative-writing minor at Princeton. He wants us to know that, at bottom, he’s a sensitive guy who’s read some Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
In one of Shteyngart’s best scenes (perhaps inspired by his own experience teaching creative writing at Columbia University), young Barry tries to wow his college girlfriend with a story about a misunderstood banker who stumbles out of his Mercedes-Benz into a Vermont pasture to confess his mistakes to a beautiful shepherdess (i.e., his girlfriend). Barry’s professor is having none of it. About Barry and his Goldman Sachs–bound classmates, he says, “Even the volatility of their emotions is a financialized asset which can be traded between them at will.” This feedback is lost on Barry. What sends him reeling on his road trip these many years later is Seema’s accusation that he has “no imagination.” As Barry tirelessly reminds us, he strives to be a man with both “a vocation and an avocation.” But with the Feds on his tail for fraud and his wife unimpressed by his reading habits, Barry seems to have neither.
While Lake Success seethes with cynicism, Our Towns, by James and Deborah Fallows, is doggedly upbeat. And whereas Barry’s cross-country adventure ends in an expensive divorce, Our Towns is a travelogue co-authored by a husband and wife who alternate chapters. The book, now slated to become an HBO documentary, expands upon a series of articles and blog posts James wrote as a correspondent for The Atlantic. The couple makes a deliberate effort to see “flyover country” by way of their single-engine Cirrus SR22, and the many flights they record between 2012 and 2017 put a new spin on the Kerouac conceit: steering their small propeller plane toward out-of-the-way landing strips allows them to see much more of the country than would be accessible by car (or, for that matter, by bus).
So the Fallowses crisscross from Burlington, Vermont, to St. Marys, Georgia, from Guymon, Oklahoma, to Dodge City, Kansas. Some of their tales from the field are genuinely interesting: we learn why most credit card payments are processed in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and how engineers at Texas A&M University are mass-breeding a species of weevil that will eat up the invasive plant threatening Caddo Lake. But the book as a whole starts to read like a lengthy chamber of commerce brochure. The founder of the Ocean Renewable Power Company in Eastport, Maine, boasts that it’s the “Kitty Hawk of hydrokinetic power.” Holland, Michigan, is home to the world’s largest pickle-processing plant. The kids at Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science know how to construct 3-D printers. All the civic boosterism begins to run together.
The Fallowses are big fans of “public-private partnerships,” street art, and minor-league baseball teams — in other words, very visible signs of regional activity. They explain that, when they arrive in a new place, one of their first questions is, “Who makes this town go?” This method inevitably points them in the direction of mayors and local developers, and, naturally, these are the types most likely to emphasize sports stadiums, river walks, and the new magnet schools.
Attractive downtowns are all well and good, but it’s strange that the Fallowses don’t feature clergy, social workers, or nurses, who may have offered a more nuanced glimpse of daily life when citizens aren’t dining out by the waterfront. Surely there are success stories to be told about rehab centers or local parishes defying the national odds. Maybe these conversations would have been too moralistic or ambivalent for a book that is so relentlessly sunny.
Whereas Lake Success is saturated with Trump allusions, the Fallowses work hard in Our Towns to eschew national politics even as the 2016 election haunts their travels. James admits that Fox News is often blaring in the background but insists that Washington, DC, just doesn’t come up that often. Somehow, however, residents know about James’s career as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter. How do they learn this unless the conversation occasionally veers toward Washington?
The Fallowses conclude that “[t]he more often national politics came into local discussions, the worse shape the town was likely to be in.” This is likely true, but the Fallowses hold so firm to this maxim that the reader gets the sense they’re afraid to broach both national politics and deep-seated local problems. James mentions that a nurse in Bend, Oregon, seems wary of giving him codeine for his flu because of the region’s opioid epidemic. But we’re left wondering what would have happened if James had followed up with her about how the city is faring with the crisis. Instead, the chapter pivots to a bullet-point list of all the opportunities available at Central Oregon Community College.
Likewise, when Deborah investigates rural healthcare in Ajo, Arizona, she gives a quick nod to drug- and depression-related issues and the challenges of operating a clinic so isolated that pregnant women can’t receive prenatal care. But then we receive a cheerful description of how gardens and farmers markets are answering nutrition needs in the desert. The story of Ajo ends with the Fallowses purchasing “jars of local citrus marmalade.”
In their preface, the Fallowses concede that two of the businesses they profile in Our Towns have since failed and that not all the places they visited are on the mend. We’re left to wonder which businesses these are and whether, in retrospect, the Fallowses see why they didn’t make it. Such reporting, however, would have required more skepticism toward their hosts’ sales pitches, an approach that clearly didn’t fit their book’s message of civic optimism.
So if the Fallowses come across too earnest and Shteyngart too stinging, what’s the contemporary writer to do? As puritanical as it sounds, some sincerity may help. In Lionel Trilling’s famous formulation, the rise of the novel coincided with the decline of sincerity as a serious moral virtue. At some point in the 18th century, Trilling suggests, the commitment to do and say what we mean — usually in conformity with religious principles — came to seem wooden and odd.
American sincerity probably lingered a little longer, given our rates of religiosity and the fact that we are so geographically dispersed. But there’s no question that plainspokenness gave way to an obsession with “authenticity.” The earlier strain of honesty had less to do with the individual: we spoke sincerely as a mark of faithfulness or, relatedly, to uphold the community’s virtue. Whatever primness was present at Plymouth Rock has long since yielded to romanticism, Freudianism, and the free-spirited urge to be true to oneself, not to some preening external authority. Authenticity remains a crucial part of the stories Americans tell themselves, but the self-conscious, self-centered strain of recent decades has flattered libertarians, hippies, Southerners, start-up executives, and, of course, wandering tourists.
Maybe, though, Americans are so angry because what they’ve been sold no longer seems authentic and they’ve lost the moral vocabulary to be sincere. In this absence of plainspokenness, Lake Success and Our Towns quest after what they want to be true. Barry tries to honor the love interests of his 19-year-old self, while the Fallowses look for the perfect microbrewery to fight urban blight. Yet they invite our suspicion: Barry doesn’t have an avocation, not all American towns are healthy, and our president isn’t a self-made man. We can only hope that, as citizens take to the streets, the authors who meet them there will truly tell it like it is.