Well, for one thing, I don’t know him.
But, from now on, whenever anyone asks me yet again why I married my African-American husband instead of a fellow Soviet-born Jew, I will hand them Shteyngart’s recently released memoir, “Little Failure.” For in it, he has done a pitch-perfect job of putting on display everything I absolutely, positively cannot stand in a man.
To whit, the following are things that, in the history of humanity, have only ever happened to Gary Shteyngart, and then solely for the purpose of vexing him:
1. Russia is cold
3. Attending Jewish Day School on financial aid
4. Having his name changed to something easier for Americans to pronounce
5. Wearing hand-me-down clothes donated to the Jewish Federation
6. Being called communist by kids who didn’t understand the subtly nuanced differences between coming from Russia and being a Russian-Jewish refugee
7. Bringing strange ethnic food to school for lunch and being teased about it
8. Parents who expected him to do well in school despite being teased
9. Getting smacked when he didn’t
10. Attending the premiere academic high school in NYC and not being at the top of the class because other kids were cheating by studying harder and not getting drunk and stoned every afternoon
11. Not being popular in high school, despite getting drunk and stoned every afternoon
12. Not going on vacation where other kids went but to places where his parents could get the best deals
13. Parents who brought their own food to amusement parks
14. Not getting into an Ivy League college with poor grades
15. Not getting laid enough in college
16. Not getting laid at all right after college
17. Laboring in a dead-end job his parents arranged for him because he majored in English at college
18. Not having enough money to live exactly how he’d like to right out of college and friends who refused to pick up the tab every single time
19. Parents who suggested getting a more practical degree might lead to a better job and more money, instead of simply keeping quiet and handing him some
20. Parents who survived communism and, as a result, are insufficiently liberal and vote all wrong now
21. Grandparents who either died at the front or nearly starved to death during the siege of Leningrad in World War II making it more challenging for Gary to feel bad about his own hardships (see all of the above)
However, despite the tragic hand he was dealt, Gary Shteyngart is thrilled to announce he heroically overcame it to become a much better person than either of his parents, not to mention all Soviet Jews who, for the record, are identical in thought and action and thus he feels no qualms speaking for every single one of them to Tablet Magazine.
For instance, according to Gary, his parents foolishly immigrated to America and proceeded to better their lot by studying, getting jobs, working hard, and buying a medium-class house in Queens. How provincial! How striving! How cliché! But Gary isn’t about moving up. He’s moving out. To Manhattan. Where, sure, he can’t meet the rent on his downtown hovel (which prompts his mother to dub him Little Failure), but can’t you see how bohemian he is? He isn’t selling out to the Man. Why can’t his parents, who should be familiar with poverty, having actually experienced it instead of merely play-acting, recognize the romance?
Oh, and you know what else is totally lame about his parents? They’re so knee-jerk pro-Israel. What do they know about Jewish persecution anyway? Did they attend a Solomon Shechter School where teachers tortured them by making kids learn boring prayers, Hebrew, and stuff? Why can’t they be as enlightened as their son about these things?
Finally, Gary’s parents are totally racist. They cautioned him to be careful walking the streets of Queens because he might get mugged. Gary, on the other hand, made a black friend in high school! For real! Well, OK, maybe he wasn’t exactly a friend. But, they did play hacky sack in Central Park. Once. And Gary didn’t tell his parents about it. He’s positive that if he did though, they would have for sure said racist things.
The funny part is, that black kid Gary Shteyngart brushed up against in the halls and felt compelled to write about in an attempt to stress how down he is could very well have been my husband. They attended the same NYC specialized high school (though five years apart, so they just missed each other). Previous to that, my husband also attended an Upper East Side private school on financial aid, where he was one of the few African-American kids in the same way Gary was one of the few Russian kids at Shechter. In yet another coincidence, my husband too has asthma and, if asked, will happily tell you that he didn’t get laid as much as he would have liked to in college, either.
Now here comes the key difference between the man I married and the one I didn’t (beyond my never having met him; but, I could if I wanted to, we have some mutual acquaintances): My husband doesn’t whine about any of it. He rarely even mentions it.
Traditionally, memoir writers have accomplished something of note or, at least, have a particularly unique story to tell. There was nothing unique to me about Gary Shteyngart’s story (though I realize those who didn’t emigrate from the Soviet Union, attend Jewish Day School on scholarship, had their name changed, and still, to this day, bring their own strange, ethnic food into amusement parks might feel differently).
But he did accomplish something of note. He made it much easier for those of us who married out to explain precisely why.
Then again, with an attitude like that, I’m really no better than Gary Shteyngart, am I? Lumping all Soviet Jewish men together in the same way he lumps all Soviet-born Jews? True, I do know dozens just like him. But I also know dozens who, thankfully, aren’t.
So I take it back. The book doesn’t explain why I’m not married to a Soviet Jew. It just explains why I’m not married to Gary Shteyngart.
And why I gave it to my 15-year-old son as an example of whom not to become.