Gary Shteyngart thanks the Greyhound bus company at the end of his forthcoming novel. The novelist and Columbia University creative writing professor drafted Lake Success (Random House, Sept.) during an epic 2016 bus trip, traveling from New York City to El Paso, Tex., tapping out descriptions on his iPhone from a bus seat.
“I knew from the beginning that this was going to be a kind of monumental, almost life-changing journey for me,” he says. “Those of us who live on the coasts are not that familiar with the interior of the country, and nothing beats taking a journey by Greyhound. That’s where you really see the country up close.”
The book tells the story of Barry, a millionaire hedge fund founder who also escapes his New York City life on a cross-country bus trip. Barry flees problems with his wife, an inability to cope with his autistic son, and legal complications at his hedge fund. Back in New York, Barry’s unhappy wife must cope with his absence and make some momentous life decisions, alone.
Throughout his journey, Barry chases memories of his undergraduate life at Princeton, trying to escape into a more carefree time in his life. Shteyngart once taught at the Ivy League university and gained a measure of sympathy for his hero. “Princeton is one of those schools where everyone ends up on Wall Street,” he says. “You have these superintelligent people, but also they have their whole lives already planned out—and they almost know that they’re not going to be happy.”
Barry follows the same route that Shteyngart took during his days-long Greyhound trip. “To be honest, a lot of this is kind of reportage,” says Shteyngart. “A lot of the stuff you read in the book happens. Not all of it, obviously, but a great deal of it.”
Shteyngart started the book during a tumultuous election year and an anxious moment in his personal life as well. He’d gotten stuck after writing more than 100 pages of a new novel, a globe-trotting thriller about a woman who works as an intelligence agent for a hedge fund. For the first time in his writing career, Shteyngart abandoned a novel before it was finished.
“It was scary,” he says, recalling the moment he stopped writing the thriller and started writing Lake Success, a departure from his earlier work. “The previous novels I’d written were all about the Russian-American experience, and this book has almost nothing to do with that. So for a second, I kind of froze and thought, ‘Oh, crap! Am I unable to do this? Am I unable to write things other than my own biography?’ ”
Those fears were unfounded, as Shteyngart drafted Lake Success between June and December of 2016—a personal writing record for the novelist. As for the abandoned manuscript, Shteyngart says, “Nobody will ever see it. Maybe I’ll donate it to a university someday. Or maybe I’ll just burn it.”