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Originally published Friday, January 10, 2014 at 5:05 AM

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‘Little Failure’: misery, then mastery for Gary Shteyngart

Gary Shteyngart’s heartbreaking and hilarious memoir “Little Failure” tells his story, from his ill-fated Russian Jewish ancestors to his miserable childhood to his eventual success as a satirical novelist. Shteyngart discusses his book Monday at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Gary Shteyngart

The author of “Little Failure” will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 13, at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $30; purchase of the book includes two event tickets (206-652-4255 or

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Novelist Gary Shteyngart has been described variously as one of his generation’s most original and exhilarating writers and a Borscht Belt comic. Rather amazingly, both are on the mark. His hilarious satirical novels (“The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” “Absurdistan” and “Super Sad True Love Story”) set contemporary émigrés flailing about wildly between radically different cultures.

In his funny, heartbreaking and soul-baring memoir, “Little Failure” (Random House, 360 pp., $27), his own plight makes his fictional characters pale in comparison.

Born in Soviet Russia to a middle-class family (his father was an engineer, his mother a music teacher), he and his family carried a burden of grief as Russian Jews who barely survived Stalin’s Great Purge and the Nazi siege of Leningrad. The author brings his ancestors into the story, he cautions us, only to march them toward their ends “in some of the worst ways imaginable.”

For his part, Gary was a puny, frightened kid, stricken with asthma and subject to suffocating panic attacks. He was ridiculed relentlessly by his abusive father (“Eh, you, Snotty”) and called “Little Failure” by his mother. When not inflicting their collective miseries on their only son, his parents fought magnificently.

When the author was 7, the family immigrated to America, and his story begins to reflect the biting satire and wit that burns through his novels. “The next year I get the present every boy wants,” he quips. “A circumcision.”

At Hebrew school in the U.S. (where he speaks neither Hebrew nor English) Shteyngart finds himself a Russian during the height of Reagan’s “Evil Empire” and quickly achieves the rank of second-most hated boy at school. Desperate for acceptance, he finds survival in humor, “the last resort of the besieged Jew.”

Thus begins a precipitous decline from youthful brilliance. “First through the wonders of Hebrew school, then through the tube of American television and popular culture, then down (or should I say up?) through the 3-foot bong of Oberlin College.”

With daily drinking and pot smoking, it’s a small miracle that the author can recall anything of his school years, either at the elite and demanding Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan or at college. But he does, vividly. And his animated narrative sets contemporary immigrant experience in a lurid and revealing light.

Half his class at Stuyvesant were poor immigrant kids whose single-minded work ethic and drive bowl him over. These students do not have backup plans, he writes. “We will not be filling in at our daddy’s firm or taking a gap year in Laos. Some of us are from Laos.”

Gone soon are his dreams (and parents’ expectations) of Harvard Law School, as well as his inherited Republican values and racial prejudice. He finds kindred souls among the “stoner-intellectuals” of Oberlin, where he experiences his first tender love affair.

At college the author also embraces the one thing he has always pursued with competence and passion, his writing.

The rest of Shteyngart’s story, his struggle as a writer in New York, near-total self-destruction, mentorship, reconciliation and success, is effusively and delightfully told with a novelist’s flair for detail.

That he survived it all is another small miracle.

“This was nobody’s fault,” he concludes at one point. “We Soviet Jews were simply invited to the wrong party. And then we were too frightened to leave.”

Olympic Peninsula author Tim McNulty’s latest book is the poetry collection “Ascendance” (Pleasure Boat Studio).

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