"You want to be this?"
I want to be this.
* * *
At the Strand Book Annex I stuffed my tote with specimens from the 50-percent-discounted trade paperbacks aisle, sifting through the discarded review copies, looking for someone just like me on the back cover: a young goateed boulevardier, a desperately urban person, obsessed with the Orwells and Dos Passoses, ready for another Spanish Civil War if only those temperamental Spanishers would get around to having one. And if I found such a doppelganger I would pray that his writing wasn't good. Because the publication pie was only so big. Surely these blue-blooded American publishers, those most Random of Houses, would see right through my overeager immigrant prose and give the ring to some jerk from Brown, his junior year at Oxford or Salamanca giving him all the pale color needed for a marketable bildungsroman.
After handing over six dollars to the Strand, I would run back to my office to swallow all 240 pages of the novel in one go, while my Russian coworkers hooted it up next door with their vodka-fueled poetry. I was desperately looking for the sloppy turn of phrase or the MFA cliché that would mark the novel in question inferior to the one gestating in my office computer (idiotic working title: The Pyramids of Prague).
One day after courting gastric disaster by eating two portions of Wall Street vindaloo I exploded into the Strand's Art and Architecture section, my then $29,000-a-year salary no match for the handsome price tag on a Rizzoli volume of nudes by Egon Schiele. But it wasn't a melancholic Austrian who would begin to chip away at the alcoholic and doped-up urban gorilla I was steadily becoming. It wouldn't be those handsome Teutonic nudes that would lead me on the path back to the uncomfortable place.
The book was called St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars, the baroque blue hues of the Smolny Convent Cathedral practically jumping off the cover. With its six pounds of thick, glossy weight, it was, and still is, a coffee-table book. This was in itself a problem.
The woman I was in love with at the time, another Oberlin graduate ("love who you know," my provincial theory), had already criticized my bookshelves for containing material either too lightweight or too masculine. Whenever she came by my new Brooklyn studio apartment, her pale midwestern eyes scanning the assembled soldiers of my literary army for a Tess Gallagher or a Jeanette Winterson, I found myself yearning for her taste and, as a corollary, the press of her razor-sharp collarbone against mine. Hopelessly, I arranged my Oberlin texts such as Tabitha Konogo's Squatters & the Roots of Mau Mau next to newly found woman-ethnic gems such as Lois-Ann Yamanaka's Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, which I always imagined to be the quintessential Hawaiian coming-of-age story. (Someday I should read it.) If I bought Architecture of the Tsars I would have to hide it from this girl-woman in one of my cupboards behind a scrim of roach motels and bottles of cheap GEO GI vodka.
Other than failing my parents and being unable to finish The Pyramids of Prague, my main sorrow consisted of my loneliness. My first girlfriend ever, a fellow Oberlin student, an attractive, curly-haired white girl from North Carolina, had gone down south to live with a handsome drummer in his van. I would spend four years after graduating college without so much as kissing a girl. Breasts and backsides and caresses and the words "I love you, Gary" lived on only in abstract memory. Unless I'm telling you otherwise, I am completely in love with everyone around me for the rest of this book.
And then there was the price tag of Architecture of the Tsars ninety-five dollars, marked down to sixty dollars this would buy me just under forty-three chicken cutlets over at my parents' house. My mother always practiced tough love with me when it came to matters fiscal. When her failure showed up for dinner one night, she gave me a packet of chicken cutlets, Kiev style, meaning stuffed with butter. Gratefully, I accepted the chicken, but Mama told me each cutlet was worth "approximately one dollar forty." I tried to buy fourteen cutlets for seventeen dollars, but she charged me a full twenty, inclusive of a roll of Saran Wrap in which to store the poultry. A decade later, when I had stopped drinking so much, the knowledge that my parents would not stand by me and that I had to go at life furiously and alone drove me to perform terrifying amounts of work.
Excerpted from Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart. Copyright © 2014 by Gary Shteyngart. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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