Review: Pandemic Literature in Real Time | Book reviews and short stories

HAMILTON CAIN Star Tribune

“Our Friends of the Country” by Gary Shteyngart; Random House, 336 pages, $28.

Here it is: the cutting edge of the literature on the pandemic. Last year, in a superhuman feat, Scottish author Ali Smith delivered ‘Summer’, the brilliant final installment of his seasonal quartet, written in real time as COVID-19 raged across the world. This spring, Rachel Cusk released “Second Place,” about overworked artists quarantined on the English coast. And now comes Gary Shteyngart with his cheerful but sometimes tense “Our Country Friends,” a Tolstoyan tale that depicts four men, three women, and a non-binary child squatting in a bungalow colony outside of New York City.

Like other protagonists in Shteyngart, Senderovsky is something of an avatar for the author, a Russian-Jewish émigré married to a childhood acquaintance, Masha. They’re very Manhattan: he’s a neurotic writing teacher, she’s a high-strung psychiatrist, and their adopted Chinese child, Nat (née “Natasha”), professes passions for Asian boy bands and gender fluidity. Senderovsky’s high school friends — Karen, a Korean-American and wealthy Silicon Valley innovator, and Vinod, a struggling writer on lung cancer rebound — have also decamped to the country, where they’re joined by Ed and Dee well-heeled, a swagger, sexy transplant from the southern trailer parks and former student of Senderovsky.

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When worlds collide, expect sparks. In the woods, Senderovsky built a crescent of bungalows around a main house, each with an exotic place name. The stay begins badly as buried desires and antagonisms resurface up close, financial triumphs weighed against stalled careers. Tensions boil over with the arrival of the actor, a handsome movie star and an alpha male.

Shteyngart skewers the petty narcissisms of cultural elites with characteristic hilarity. His descriptions are precise and elegant, as in this portrait: “Vinod had a head full of graying hair reaching down to his shoulders, peppery mustaches beginning with a salty beard, and somewhere in the middle of all these growths were eyes once frenzied who had recently, politely, passed away.”

The plot revolves (for better and for worse) on the artistic and erotic rivalries between its characters. As the quarantine drags on, “Our Country Friend” falls into contrived situations and scripted banter; Shteyngart holds the satire a bit too long, bordering on precious. The politics are messy, faithfully reflecting these disunited states, but he can’t quite suppress his impulse to editorialize. While her choice of an omniscient narrator gives her leeway, the drama slips away from the narrative.

And yet his delight in his own sentences is contagious; his beady-eyed optimism uplifts us. “Nos Amis du Pays” is ultimately a generous book. As Shteyngart notes of its protagonists, “Masha and Senderovsky lay in the bed of the Petersburg bungalow, listening to the steel sheets of rain drumming on the expensive new roof. Country rain. Dacha rain. It always meant something for Masha. Instinctively, as if it were 1983… Even then, he was a source of entertainment for her, a “group of lonely clowns”, always ready to make the stupid joke about babushkas and the cabbage soup farts. And she still married him. I loved him.”

Hamilton Cain reviews fiction and non-fiction for a range of venues, including the Star Tribune, Oprah Daily, New York Times Book Review, Washington Post and Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn.

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