Our Country Friends: A Novel
Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, Our Country Friends, is billed as “The Big Chill meets Chekhov.” Whether this potential mash-up intrigues you depends on your love of ’80s movies and Russian writers. And whether or not you enjoy Our Country Friends depends upon your love of Shteyngart’s always-clever sometimes-exhausting narrative voice. More importantly it depends on whether you’re ready for your first Pandemic Novel.
The book begins in March 2020, when Russian-born writer Alexander (Sasha) Senderovsky is preparing his “artist colony” for an influx of friends who are going to ride out the pandemic together. Sasha’s past success as a writer (emphasis on past—things are a little tight right now) has allowed him to build a house and surrounding bungalows that are a throwback homage to the bungalow colony for Russian immigrants where he first met his wife, Masha Levin-Senderovsky, now a psychiatrist teleconferencing her patients from home. The familial unit is rounded out by Nat, their adopted eight-year-old daughter who is obsessed with K-Pop. Watching Senderovsky lay in essentials—mainly booze and fancy meats—and Masha’s strictures on social distancing takes the reader back 20 months ago when just about everybody was obsessed with hoarding their version of “essentials.”
The invited guests include Karen Cho, who has just become insanely wealthy by selling a popular phone dating app; and Vinod Mehta, former adjunct professor, short order cook, and would-be writer. Both are high school friends of Sasha, and their history, including Vinod’s long-time crush on Karen, is explored in snippets throughout the novel. As Shyntgart’s narrator puts it, Karen’s new wealth is enough that she can now “lash out at a white man in an expensive hoodie, safe in the knowledge that she would still get to keep her money when she was done yelling at him.”
Other guests include Ed Kim, who is best described as a gentleman dandy. He’s a distant cousin to Karen and an old friend of Sasha who can still make his host feel slightly inadequate. So much so that, “As a younger man, Sasha had dreamed of becoming Ed. He still fantasized of spending a year traveling around the world with him just as soon as his daughter graduated from the very expensive city school for sensitive and complicated children.”
The final two guests come from slightly outside the inner sanctum. Dee Cameron is a former writing student of Senderovsky who has achieved success with a book of essays that “were the equivalent of a new prisoner coming up to the toughest inmate in the can and slugging them right in the face. She wrote with a disdain for weak-bellied sentiment, mixed in with tough-love observations about the social class that had recently welcomed her into their messy brownstones. Sometimes her prose devolved into regional draw and what one review called ‘Y’all-ism.’ As a corollary, she owned a beautiful pair of 1970s cowgirls boots in a deep red color with rainbow stitching flaring out in sunburst patterns (not that any of her kin had ever worn anything of the sort).” Last to arrive is the Actor, whose famous, handsome presence inspires both awe and heavy drinking among the others.
Shteyngart takes us through six months of this self-imposed quarantine colony as these eight characters begin, end, and grapple with relationships that run the gamut from sexual to romantic to platonic to maternal.
Meanwhile, the outside world is always threatening to impose. There’s the unseen virus that is the cause of the entire exercise in the first place. And there’s the more tangible potential threat posed by an unknown guy in a black pickup who appears to be watching the colony’s residents.
Shteyngart makes the most of the differences in race, origin, and class among the main characters and the outside world, and this tension provides the dramatic backbone of the story. In the hands of a lesser (and less funny) writer, reliving the uncertainty of the early days of the pandemic could be tedious, if not PTSD-inducing. In general, Shteyngart makes it work by letting his character’s preparations for and reactions to this changed world flirt with going over the top while never quite going there.
It’s not a perfect book. Sometimes the comedy is a little too broad so that some characters remain unsympathetic. And the ending isn’t entirely satisfying because, well, the pandemic did not neatly end when the book does. But these are small faults for what is ultimately a very funny, eminently readable book that captures the tumult, tension, and uncertainty of what was undoubtedly the strangest year most of us have lived through.