Ray Rahman
January 08, 2014 AT 05:00 AM EST

Little Failure

Current Status
In Season
Gary Shteyngart
Random House

We gave it an A-

Despite its title, Little Failure is actually about several little failures: Igor, Gnu, Yid-face, Snotty, and Shteyni-dawg. Yet all these monikers belong to one person, the man we now know as Gary Shteyngart. Identity confusion is central to the life of many an immigrant, and as Shteyngart’s memoir tenderly and hilariously outlines, it can help turn an awkward, angsty, asthmatic kid from Queens into the lauded writer of comic novels like Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story.

The book spans the author’s life from his uneasy Soviet Union birth — a truck driver honks at his pregnant mother and scares her into labor, foreshadowing a life of fear and anxiety for baby Igor — all the way to the publication of his first novel, 2002’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Sandwiched between those benchmarks are richly drawn tales from his formative years. Arriving in America in the late ’70s, he is immediately an outcast among outcasts: a Cold War-era Russian at an East Coast Hebrew school. This is where he becomes Gary, in name and in spirit. Any efforts to shake that sticky stench of Other-ness generally backfire, but those agonizing experiences grant him the keenly observant, hyperaware eye of an outsider. He decides early on to be a writer and begins earmarking people, places, and moments as fodder for his first novel.

Shteyngart’s parents play a large part in all this too (it’s his mom who nicknamed him Little Failure), as do his years as a middle-class striver at a tony private college. And as funny and vivid as his tales of alienation can be, he doesn’t gloss over the pain, either. The innate humor of Shteyngart’s storytelling is dotted with touching sadness, all of it amounting to an engrossing look at his distinct, multilayered Gary-ness. ‘A-“

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