It is, as you’ve possibly noticed, a tricky time for old-school liberals, now caught between increasingly extreme versions of their traditional right-wing adversaries and the new Puritans on the left. In Our Country Friends, Gary Shteyngart sets out to explore their resulting confusion — but ends up inadvertently exemplifying it.
Like his creator, the protagonist is a Russian Jew, born in Leningrad in 1972, who as a boy moved to America with his parents and later made his name writing satirical novels about people from the same background. Unlike Shteyngart, though, Sasha Senderovsky is now facing a stalled career, having abandoned literature in an ill-advised bid for success in TV screenplays.
Luckily, Sasha still has his house in the Hudson Valley, and the bungalows around it, that he bought in more prosperous times. He also has just about enough money (or, at least, access to credit) to invite four city-dwelling old friends to sit out the first Covid lockdown there with him and his family.
The three oldest friends are second-generation immigrants too: an Indian and two Koreans — one of them a woman called Karen who’s made millions from an app that makes couples fall in love. The other is his former student Dee, a polemical essayist doing her liberal best to defend the poor whites she grew up with against liberal attack. Both completing and unbalancing the group is a narcissistic film star, known only as ‘the Actor,” who’s come to “discuss” (i.e. reject) Sasha’s latest script — and about whom all the women are soon fantasizing.
As good liberals, these people try hard to feel guilty about living in some splendor while people are dying in the places they’ve left behind. The trouble is that they can never quite manage it. Instead, they eat and drink a lot, form sexual partnerships of varying plausibility and learn secrets about each other (not all terribly plausible either) that change their understanding of their shared past. In a book full of allusions to Chekhov, Karen’s app also serves as Chekhov’s gun — even if Shteyngart’s explanation of how it works remains distinctly baffling.
Not that they can completely stop what’s happening in the rest of the country from breaking in. There are, for example, plenty of pro-Trump mottos on local cars and houses. Less locally, a reference Dee once made to poor whites — Trump supporters included — as “my people” leads to widespread accusations of racism on Twitter. And after George Floyd is killed, we get a particularly heartfelt passage in which Sasha wonders if America might be coming to resemble the Russia that it had once seemed such a refuge from. Or, worse still, that it had resembled it all along without him noticing, as he satirized the much easier targets of Russia and Russians with gloating vigor.
You might assume, then, that Shteyngart would now apply a similar vigor to the folks complacently partying in the Hudson Valley. Except that, like his characters, he can’t quite manage to walk the walk either. The Actor, of course, proves fair game. Yet, when it comes to what Shteyngart clearly regards as his people, he’s unable to shake off a sympathy that undermines the somewhat sporadic satire at every turn. He also supplies them with a far happier, even soppier ending than the novel would lead you to expect.
At times in fact, and despite the Chekhov references, the book that Our Country Friends brings most sharply to mind is The Wind in the Willows — in which the civilized, leisured main characters ultimately triumph over all those deplorable stoats and weasels.