This once was Gary’s regular joint. When he was a teenager, his parents’ idea of eating out was Sizzler, and going to place like the Samovar, owned in part by Mikhail Baryshnikov, was just a dream. When he grew up, he made the dream a reality. Once, taking a date to the Samovar just after his first book came out, he was introduced to Philip Roth, who was, though polite, not necessarily interested in what Shteyngart had to say. He was, however, interested in Gary’s date, which Gary chalks up to Roth being Roth: “That’s the guy I love.”
“They’ve really classed the place up,” Gary says, settling at the bar and noting the programming on the two televisions above it. (“Football, ballet.”) There is a platinum blonde at a white piano. There is a question about my expense budget.
“Is this beyond Slate.com’s reach?” He’s holding a menu in one hand and with the other pointing to the phrase salmon caviar. “Cuz honestly.”
“Because honestly what?”
“Because: Honestly? It’s time to have some caviar.”
Speaking in Russian, he orders a shot of house-made horseradish vodka for himself and a shot of pepper vodka for me. I’ve had pepper vodka in mind since reading (in Patricia Herlihy’s Vodka: A Global History) that Stolichnaya—the trailblazer of the premium vodka market—only began producing such a product at Khrushchev’s insistence. “I always hated that name,” Gary says. Stolichnaya Vodka translates as the vodka of the capital city, and its label features a landmark of Moscow, which usurped his hometown’s place in 1918. “To me, in some weird metaphysical way, St. Petersburg is still the capital. What if St. Petersburg had always been the capital? Could Stalin have taken power?”
The bartender delivers the shots. The kitchen is taking its time with our caviar and the spongy blini to wrap it in. Gary lowers his nose to the glass and wets his beak, just a bit. “Technically, you’re supposedly to down the whole thing. Men shouldn’t sip.” When the food comes, he toasts: “To the friendship of the literary people—this toast will be very Russian in its sentimentality—nobody respects us anymore but we must fight to preserve our way of life.”
The bartender reappears: “Two more shots, yes, why not?”
“Yes, why not.”
We chat about the Russian diminutive. Vodka means little water, just as Failurchka, the nickname bestowed on Gary by his mother, means little failure. But even his parents’ nontoxic terms of endearment were belittling suggestions that he was nothing more than an extension of them. “That’s who I am in their eyes. It’s both good and bad.” The good part involved being a little boy with his face in his father’s chest hair or his hand on his mother’s hem: “As flawed as they were, that was safety.”
A second bartender appears. She comes to understand that some form of journalism is in progress and insists on pouring two complimentary shots of horseradish vodka: “You give us good review, yes?” Gary toasts to the zakuska of the moment, a basket of pickles: “To the produce of the land, be it artisanal or locavore …”
It’s time to split: “Let’s leave Russia for the occupied land of Ukraine.” We have a dinner reservation downtown, and catch a cab for a trip to a new branch of Taras Bulba, “the first U.S. outpost of a popular chain in Moscow and Kiev.” The restaurant takes its name from a Gogol novella. “I’ve never read it,” Gary says, feeling like a peasant for not having done so. “My father loves that book.”
I remark on the Russian tendency to name restaurants after books and authors; we could have passed this evening at a cozy place named for a Chekhov play or an apocalyptically gaudy one named for a Pushkin epic. “Cultures with great food don’t do that,” Gary observes. “There’s no Dante Pappardelle or Bouillabaisse Flaubert or Paella Cervantes. When you have to have literature for food, that’s sad.”
A promo for Parks & Recreation flashes on the TV in the back of the cab. “Is that my girl? Is that Rashida Jones?” The actress is among the talent appearing in the Little Failure book trailer. “She’s so smart and beautiful.” He turns off the TV.
In the men’s room at Taras Bulba, Gary discovers a jolly reappropriation of a Soviet anti-alcohol poster from the 1950s: In the original, a healthy young man at a dinner table is just saying nyet to a glass of a colorless liquid. In this version, he is refusing a hamburger. I wind around to mentioning Patricia Herlihy’s theory that Nicholas II hastened his overthrow by prohibiting vodka during World War I: He wanted his soldiers to show up sober, so he banned vodka nationwide, forgetting that taxes on it brought in about 30 percent of his country’s revenue. Thus, he encountered money troubles, and some soldiers arrived at the front with no rifles. Meanwhile, no one stopped drinking. Everyone just made bootleg vodka instead. This used up a lot of grain:
In February 1917 women protesting the shortages of flour sparked the first phase of the revolution that ultimately forced the Tsar to abdicate. Eight months later, the Bolsheviks seized power.
Speaking in Russian, Gary orders us two shots of pertsovka, which is a spicy subset of gorilka, which is the Ukraine’s full-bodied contribution to the vodka world. For zakuski we have salo, lovely lard strips: “I would like to toast to the pig that gave its life to be wrapped around a scallion in SoHo. What a sad end.”
There’s another toast, another horseradish vodka. On the table is an Olivier salad, the history of which is better understood by checking out Wikipedia than consulting the author: “I’ve been so haunted by this thing, I can’t even look into roots.” I think it’s delicious. “My mother’s version is better,” he says.
Taras Bulba sends its customers off with a complimentary shot and instructions to tap a foot against a horseshoe for luck. The manager explains this as a Cossack tradition.* Gary puts the tradition in historical context: “Let’s go, guys! We’re about to pogrom some Jews.”
We cab it to Canal Street and his regular bar, which is named Clandestino, and he orders his regular drink, “which no Russian would ever own up to drinking.” Having spent my expense budget and overspent the rest of me, I leave him there with his vodka tonic and his favorite bartender and the wood paneling that reminds him of the aspirational interior of his parent’s place in Little Neck, Queens, across the bay from the big action.
* * *
“I lost a lot of stuff last night,” he tells me on Sunday afternoon. “I lost my hat, my sense of self …” It’s a bit after 3, and we are at the start of a walking tour of Gary’s teenage years—his tenure as one of the lowliest students at the city’s most elite public school. Twenty-odd contest winners are gathered on a sidewalk in damp Manhattan, outside of Stuyvesant High School’s old campus. He’s clutching a signpost like some kind of an alien convention delegate. The sign features the same black-and-white photo of year-old Gary that appears on the memoir’s jacket—excitable boy, miniature convertible—and it bears an all-caps slogan: FAILURE IS AN OPTION. He is rattling a bottle of Ativan available to anyone who feels as nervous as he does: “I’m not a licensed MSW but what the hell? And also ...”