Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart - review by Keith Miller

Keith Miller

Out of Towners

Our Country Friends

By

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‘The pure products of America’, said William Carlos Williams, ‘go crazy.’ And of course the evidence does tend to bear that out. But two important questions remain. What do we mean when we talk about purity? And what do we mean when we talk about America?

Gary Shteyngart has quietly become one of the most talented comic writers working in English today. More or less uniquely, apart maybe from bits of Zadie Smith, he’s even funny on the subject of identity. He’s also good on both Tom Wolfe’s ‘right – BAM! – now’ and J G Ballard’s ‘next five minutes’, having trained his lens on the brutal carnival of post-Soviet Russia in Absurdistan, the impact of tech on the mating habits of youngish Americans in Super Sad True Love Story and the fallout of the financial crisis of 2008 in Lake Success. If all that were not enough, he’s an unusually acute observer of a certain strain of male sexual anguish that some of his predecessors might have treated with an indulgence bordering on mysticism, but which most of his contemporaries now seem to view as little more than an abstract social problem or a handy plot device.

Our Country Friends builds on Shteyngart’s own experiences during the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic. In the spring of 2020, a Russian-American couple, the Senderovskys, invite three old friends and a couple of newer ones to flee the plague-ridden city and hunker down with them in upstate New York for the duration. Here they have re-created a version of the ‘international’ camps where they spent childhood summers with other first- and second-generation immigrants, setting a little semicircle of ‘bungalows’ opposite the big house, which soon turns out not to be quite as big as the reader may have initially imagined – not big enough, at any rate, to contain the shenanigans that soon unfold.

The octet (the Senderovskys have an eight-year-old adopted daughter, precocious but troubled, and crazy for the pure products of the Korean pop-music industry) listen to Ethiopian jazz, share some laughs and eat pretty well, thanks largely to the culinary skills of the directionless but highly accomplished Ed, scion of an electrical goods dynasty. But, inevitably, rivalries and attachments – some old ones and a couple of new ones – blossom. Paranoia about the virus mingles with mounting fears about a diseased body politic. After the murder of George Floyd in May, Black Lives Matter banners proliferate along the lanes; but so too do ‘thin blue line’ flags and obscure but possibly extremist symbols – and all but one of our little surrogate family have a heritage which tends to keep their antennae finely tuned to any stiffening of Poujadist sentiments among their neighbours. A social media monstering takes place. A black truck is repeatedly seen flitting past the compound or idling menacingly at the end of the driveway, headlights burning like a surgeon’s lamp.

Probably because it arrives hot on the heels of the events it purports to describe, Our Country Friends is a little baggier and rougher round the edges than some of its predecessors, but it retains their considerable strengths. It’s both tender and hilarious (frequently at once), and it’s attentive to the jittery cultural and political moment in which it’s set. One character’s brush with Covid is vividly enacted through a series of lurid fever dreams (this was inspired by the author’s own medical torments at the time when the novel is set, which he has written about bravely and beautifully in a long New Yorker article). Shteyngart has a Nabokovian ability to enrich narrative with metaphor like some ingenious literary nutritionist – one character’s eyes are ‘staffed’ with eyelashes; another’s lips form a ‘seagull’; a tempting contemporary take on vitello tonnato is ‘strafed’ with kosher salt – though he also shares Nabokov’s occasional weakness for a bad pun.

Like most comic writers, Shteyngart sometimes runs the risk of being thought unserious. I’m not sure that’s an issue here: the characters check their privilege on a regular basis, regretting that their rainbow community doesn’t include any African-Americans and generally talking intelligently and even entertainingly about the sorrows of the world like the good bourgeois-bohemian progressives they mostly are. But as is true of many clever writers, he’s not always great at walking the line between cleverness and cuteness. The book riffs on two traditions: one in which a group of old friends, mostly but not entirely successful and mostly but not entirely unhappy, meet up after a few years apart, and another, distinctly Russian one in which highly privileged and almost entirely unhappy people waft around a country estate and speculate, a little idly, about what’s happening now and what’s threatening to happen in the future.

Neither approach is what you’d call understated, but the Russian stuff is hammered into place so vigorously that one can hardly hear oneself think at times. There’s a dramatis personae at the start; the Senderovskys, whose given names are Sasha, Masha and Natasha by the way, are frequently referred to as ‘landowners’; characters read classics of Russian literature as they, yes, waft around the estate. There’s a pro-am performance of Uncle Vanya towards the end, just in case anyone’s in any doubt. There are even two apparitions of Chekhov’s famous revolver: a faltering hot water system (‘PARDON OUR COUNTRY PLUMBING’, says a sign in all the bungalows) prefigures a bout of marital strife; a long-unpublished manuscript is found in a hollow tree (Steve the groundhog’s winter palace) and, in due course, detonates an ancient rivalry.

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