A Literary Walkabout in Gary Shteyngart's Queens

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

In 2002, Gary Shteyngart broke into the literary scene with "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," a novel about young Russians living in Alphabet City and in a fictitious city in Europe. His latest book, "Little Failure," is a memoir about his own experience as a young Russian immigrant in Kew Gardens, Queens.

Shteyngart says that it was at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens that he first made his public debut as a writer.

It all started on the day when Shteyngart 's teacher, "Ms. S," asked him to read his novel "The Chalenge" to his English class. "And as I am speaking, along with my strange new English voice, I am also hearing something entirely foreign," he writes in "Little Failure." "The children are silent. They are listening to my every word."

That moment marked a kind of breakthrough; coming from the Soviet Union had been a difficult transition. "Ronald Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ speech had just come out, all those movies, Red Dawn, Red Hamster, Red Gerbil etc.—I knew I was just the worst of the lot.  But you know, when I started writing this stuff," he remembers, "I started to move myself away from being Russian into being this storytelling freak."


Mythili Rao/WNYC
Writer Gary Shteyngart in front of the Kew Motor Inn, directly across from his family's first apartment in Queens.

The Kew Motor Inn is off Union Turnpike. In "Little Failure," Shteyngart described it as "a 1960s slab that we are too Fresh off the Boat to recognize as 'the most famous and exotic couples-friendly motel in Queens'"-- a place where for $49 an hour, patrons can stay in the Egyptian Room, which "looks oddly like the mirrored, lacquered, Cleopatra-friendly rooms of our relatives."

Mythili Rao/WNYC
Writer Gary Shteyngart in the courtyard of his family's first apartment in Queens.

In "Little Failure," Shteyngart recalls feeding the squirrels in the courtyard. "I call them Laika, Belka, and Strelka, after the three dog cosmonauts launched into space in the 1950s and '60s," he writes. "I know I shouldn't think along Soviet lines anymore, but Belka, the second dog's name, means 'squirrel' in Russian, so what am I supposed to do?"

Mythili Rao
Writer Gary Shteyngart outside Main Street Cinemas in Queens.

When Shteyngart's father takes him to see the French film "Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman," they are in for a surprise: It's not exactly the cultured film the elder Shteyngart was expecting. "The next eighty-three minutes are spent with Papa's hair hand clasped to my eyes, the Herculean task before me: getting it unclasped," Shteyngart writes in his memoir. "Of course, we have to sit through the whole thing, since we have already paid for the tickets." 


Gary Shteyngart


Gisele Regatao


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