Excerpt from Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Little Failure

A Memoir

by Gary Shteyngart

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart X
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 368 pages
    Oct 2014, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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The Turks— or are they really Turks, perhaps they are American spies merely using Turkey as a staging ground (Jesus Christ, I'm not even seven years old, and already so many enemies!)— are indeed climbing the beach-umbrella-covered mountain. One thought: "our border guards." A sleight of hand, on my father's part; he has devoted the previous thirty years of his life to hating the Soviet Union, much as he will devote the next thirty to loving America. But we haven't left the country yet. And I, militant worshipper of the Red Army, red Pioneer neckties, just about anything bloody red, am not allowed to know yet what my father knows, namely that everything I hold dear is untrue. He writes:

In the morning the Soviet border guards saw fresh trails on the beach of the "Pushkin" sanatorium and called on the border guard, who summoned their search dog. She quickly found the two hidden Aqua-Lungs under the rocks. It was clear— an enemy. "Search!" the border guards commanded the dog, and she immediately ran in the direction of the International Pioneers Camp.

Oh, what I would give for a doggie, the adorable fuzzy kind my father's pen is now deploying against those overweight American Turks. But my mother has enough troubles managing me, let alone a pet. ?

Story to be continued— at home.

To be continued? At home? How cruel. How will I know if the brave Soviet border guard doggie and her heavily armed human masters will discover the enemy and do to the enemy what I wish to be done to the enemy? That is, the infl iction of a slow, cruel death, the only kind we're comfortable with here in the USSR. Death to the Germans, death to the fascists, death to the capitalists, death to the enemies of the people! How my blood boils even at this ridiculously young age, how infused I am with helpless anger. And if you fast-forward to the virgin futon in my roach-infested Brooklyn studio, to the drunken downtown resettlement agency, to the annex of the Strand bookstore, circa 1996, believe me, I am still full of vile, unanalyzed, de-Oberlinized rage. A quiet, thoughtful child on the outside, garrulous and funny, but scratch this Russian and you will find a dozen Tatars, give me a rake and I will rush against the enemy hidden in the village bales, I will fl ush them out like a border collie, I will rip them to the shreds with my own teeth. Insult my pet mechanical rooster, will you! And so: anger, excitement, violence, and love. "Little son, there are only a few days left until we meet again," my father writes, and these words are truer and sadder than any in my life. Why a few days more? Why not right now? My father. My hometown. My Leningrad. The Chesme Church. The countdown has already begun. Each moment, each meter of distance between us, is intolerable.

* * *

It's 1999. Three years after my panic attack at the Strand Book Annex. I've returned to my Petersburg, née Leningrad, née Petrograd, for the first time in twenty years. I am twenty-seven years old. In about eight months, I will sign a book deal for a novel no longer called The Pyramids of Prague.

But I don't know that yet. I'm still operating on the theory that I will fail at everything I try. In 1999 I am employed as a grant writer for a Lower East Side charity, and the woman I'm sleeping with has a boyfriend who isn't sleeping with her. I've returned to St. Petersburg to be carried away by a Nabokovian torrent of memory for a country that no longer exists, desperate to find out if the metro still has the comforting smells of rubber, electricity, and unwashed humanity that I remember so well. I return home during the tail end of the Wild East days of the Yeltsin era, when the president's drinking bouts vie for the front pages with spectacular acts of urban violence. I return to what, in looks and temperament, is now a third-world country in steady free fall, every childhood memory— and there were fates worse, far worse, than a Soviet childhood— soiled by the new realities. The accordion-style bendy bus on the way from the airport has a hole the size of a child between its two halves. I know this because a small child nearly falls out when the bus lurches to a halt. It takes me less than an hour after landing to find a metaphor for my entire visit. By day four of my return I learn that my exit visa— foreigners in Russia must have a permit both to enter and leave the country— is incomplete without a certain stamp. A good third of my homecoming is spent hunting for this validation. I find myself boxed in by gargantuan Stalin-era buildings in the middle of Moskovskaya Ploshchad, Moscow Square, the exact neighborhood where I lived as a child. I am waiting for a woman from a questionable visa service so that I can bribe a hotel clerk with a thousand rubles (about thirty-five dollars at the time) to have my visa properly authenticated. I am waiting for her in the scruffy lobby of the Hotel Mir, "the worst hotel in the world," as I will call it in my Travel + Leisure article a few years later. The Hotel Mir, I should add, is exactly down the street from the Chesme Church.

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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