This Just In: Russian Satirist Is Moving Into The Co-ops
Novelist Gary Shteyngart is in the process of purchasing his East River Housing apartment; try not to do anything strange...
by Margaret Mitchell
I t was time to act. Vladimir braced himself against the desk and stood up. All alone in the back office, with no point of reference other than the kindergartensized chairs and desks that comprised the furniture, he suddenly felt himself remarkably tall. A twenty-five-year-old man in an oxford shirt gone yellow under the armpits, frayed slacks with the cuffs coming comically undone, and wing tips that bore the black traces of a house fire, he dwarfed his surroundings like the lone skyscraper they built in Queens, right across the East River. But it wasn’t true: Vladimir was short...
(The Russian Debutante’s Handbook)
Gary Shteyngart is yet another fresh young writer joining the everburgeoning artistic community of the Grand Street co-ops. His debut novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, a witty depiction of America’s new immigrants, is a success: it received the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction, the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, was named a New York Times Notable Book for 2002 and a Washington Post Best Book of the Year.
Shteyngart was born in 1972 in Leningrad (renamed Saint Petersburg) and came to the US seven years later. He has spent the last year living in Rome (“on a fellowship from a foundation run by an Italian Baroness”), but last month he flew in to be interviewed by the East River Housing Co-op Board. The apartment he has decided on features two crucial selling points: it has a balcony and it offers a nice view of downtown.
How does one buy a New York City apartment while living in Europe? “I’ve been an aficionado of the LoHo Realty website for some time,” confides Gary. “As the prices for apartments were skyrocketing, I decided to pounce from Rome. Jacob and Doris and Deena were very helpful in getting this done from Italy. I think Jacob and I exchanged a hundred emails...”
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook takes place on the Lower East Side. “I've lived absolutely all over town, from the wilds of Eastern Queens to Fort Green, Brooklyn, to the Upper West Side,” says Shteyngart, “but the four years I spent on Clinton Street convinced me that the Lower East Side is the best place to live in New York. I was working for the Educational Alliance as a grant writer, and believe me, I know the lay of the land here very well...”
When we ask him to share some of his favorite spots in the neighborhood, he admits he is partial to the Doughnut Plant (“Isn’t everybody?”).
The novelist in him is very curious about the state of pickle stand hostilities in the neighborhood.
“Who are these so-called Pickle Guys, and what have they done to Guss?” he wants to know. (The Pickle Guys settled down near Guss Pickles’ old spot on Essex Street, after Guss had moved to 85-87 Orchard Street - not exactly the stuff of the Hatfields and McCoys, but perhaps there’s potential here for a whimsical tale of shifting real estate fortunes on the Lower East Side).
“In Rome I heard Sasha Petraske is opening up a new Milk & Honey bar on Essex,” Gary continues. “That should be welcome. I’m praying El Castillo De Jagua will open up soon on Grand, so I don’t have to cross Delancey for good Dominican food. Otherwise, I'm happy with lots of stuff on or near Clinton such as the Belly bar, the aKa cafe, and Alias.”
Is it strange to be settling down in the landscape of one’s own fiction?
“I’m always living in the landscape of my fiction,” he says with a thin smile. “Currently I'm writing a novel set in my native St. Petersburg and the Caucuses, and I visit those parts frequently. Rome will also make it into my work soon enough.”
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook revels in the humor and pathos of the immigrant experience, specifically its Russian version. Does he see himself as continuing the tradition of Gogol and Bulgakov? Does he harbor a Jewish aspect as well?
Shteyngart says yes to all of the above. “Nabokov and Gogol and Bellow and Roth have influenced me a great deal, and many of the reviews are hip to that. And I love Russian and Jewish humor.” The Library Journal wrote about his work: “...this distinctive new voice, which is both richly ironic and often side-splittingly funny, still seems to be seeking the right register.” At age 32 does he see himself as a work in progress?
“Absolutely. I got lucky with the first book in the sense that it got good reviews and sold well, but the work has just begun. To be honest, I don't think most writers are ever completely happy with their work.”
We’ll get a chance to see Gary Shteyngart at the New Yorker Festival this October, as member of a panel discussing Nobel prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky.
Gary Shteyngart’s broker in his endeavor to settle among us is LoHo Realty