The novelist Gary Shteyngart rolls down a wet West 52nd Street and swings into a brashly lacquered piano bar called the Russian Vodka Room. It’s a bit after 6 on the first Saturday night of 2014. Eastern Orthodox Christmas is two days off, so he’s settling in at a bar festooned with white bunting and silver tinsel. He waggles elastic eyebrows.
In his past are three smart and funny books—The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), Absurdistan (2006), and Super Sad True Love Story (2010), each in its own way a euphoric cruise through a dystopian vision. In his very recent past is mailing a copy of his new book, a memoir titled Little Failure, to its primary dedicatees, the parents who brought him into the world in Leningrad and brought him to New York at the age of 7. Growing up in Queens, little Gary knew the kiss of his father’s fist and the choke of his mother’s coldness. In the note he sent to his parents with the book, he said, I love you, and without the things you say, I would have never been a writer. He already gave a copy to the third person listed on his dedication page, his psychoanalyst, who reads slowly.
In his future is the publication, on the first Tuesday in January, of this book, Little Failure, which is already a hit. Reviewers have admired its confessions of fear and desire, its reckoning with personal and historical traumas, its caustic analysis of its very own pleas for love. In his future is an epic stretch of selling his soulfulness in interviews and at bookstores. He’s up for anything—“a publicist’s dream,” says his publicist, dreamily—so he goes everywhere. In his future are 146 days of book tour, punctuated by returns to New York to teach a writing class at Columbia and, in flight, drafting a pilot for a TV version of Super Sad. This is a lot for a man his age—“41, which is 74 in Russian years”—to take on. “I wish I were still 31,” he will say five hours later. “Damn. I could still do all that and do coke. In fact, the coke helped. I have friends who can still do that. I’m like, ‘What the fuck?! I didn’t go to Bard College. I went to Oberlin.’ ”
Gary Shteyngart picks up a menu printed with the Russian Vodka Room’s logo, in which the savage hammer and sickle garnish a cocktail served up at the center of a Soviet star. Across the room, a fat man limbers his fingers and eyes a black piano. Gary Shteyngart receives his brief: The job tonight is to help me explain to myself and everyone exactly what vodka is.
Of course, everyone knows what vodka is. Defined by law to be a neutral spirit “as tasteless and odorless as possible,” it is the best-selling liquor in the U.S.—“the backbone of the spirits industry.” You don’t need Gary Shteyngart to tell you why such a bland booze should be so successful, but he’s here, so why not? “It’s utility. Vodkas mix well because they have so little personality.”
Around the world, vodka is an icon and emblem of Russia, where it is variously lyricized and decried, both a poem and a problem. There could have been vodka without Russia; both Poland and Ukraine have staked plausible claims of historical precedence. But there could not have been the grandeur of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, nor the evil of the USSR, nor the mystery of the steppes, nor the mystique of the onion dome, without vodka. “It’s the curse and liberation of Russia,” as the British writer Colin Thubron once put it. Gary thinks of Russia’s relationship with vodka in parallel terms: “It’s very Homer-Simpsonian: The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”
The Russian Vodka Room lists 44 commercial vodkas on its menu, including Smirnoff (the pioneer licensed for U.S. consumption in the 1930s), Tito’s (distilled in Texas), and Ciroc (from Diddy, because every third celebrity has a vodka these days; recent weeks have brought news of labels launched by a retired Piston, a former Patriot, and New Hampshire’s Old Man in the Mountain). “The difference among vodkas is not that great,” Gary says, “but Russian Standard is the best. It doesn’t have a story about how it’s been triple-filtered through a diamond in a rhinoceros's asshole, but it gets the job done.”
We, however, are here to drink the house-infused stuff. You may have gotten the idea—what with recent atrocities regarding vodkas flavored to taste of whipped cream and peanut butter and shopping-mall cinnamon buns—that infused vodkas are relatively new and very often gross, but distillers have been at it since the 1400s, and there is nobility in the tradition. Ordering in Russian, Shteyngart gets us a 7-ounce carafe of the horseradish and a few bites to eat.
The vodka arrives. He pours it but does not drink. “We’re gonna wait for some toasts.” The booze cannot go into his mouth until a proper salute has flowed from his heart—and the drinks cannot go down the hatch until the barman puts out our food, our zakuski: “that which you follow the vodka with.” The most important part of Russian drinking is Russian eating. A zakuska is a sine qua non, with an exception allowed for very tough economic times, when it’s acceptable to chase the vodka with a sniff of your own overcoat.
While we wait, we talk about politics, about the totally insane role vodka has played in Russian history. Stalin used it as a truth serum and a torture device. Gorbachev assured himself the displeasure of the people by undertaking a temperance campaign as his first official act. Peter the Great really liked to party. According to a new book titled Vodka Politics, Peter’s travesty of a court—a group he dubbed the Drunken Council of Fools and Jesters—commonly enjoyed noontime luncheons at which everyone got wasted before the soup course and stayed that way for three or four days. Gary thinks that Dan Savage’s boycott of Russian vodka (on the grounds of Putin’s anti-gay measures) is a nice symbolic gesture that won’t change a thing: “If you could boycott natural gas, now that would be something.”
The kitchen is slow—“Now I’m really dying to drink this”—and while we wait, Gary scrolls through the photos on his phone. These are mostly pictures of his 3-month-old kid, and we chat about our sons while he searches for a photo of himself sloppily embracing an old friend after a recent vodka night. The image illustrates his memoir’s hairy intimacy—“the kind of candor you get at 5 in the morning after two bottles of vodka have been drunk by two men. You just open up. Don’t try this at home.”
The zakuski arrive and he raises a toast: “To all socialists everywhere and also de Blasio.” We eat meat dumplings and pickled mushrooms and herring under the coat, which involves fish smothered in sour cream and je ne sais quoi: “It’s one of the sadder things, but I love it,” he says, and then he raises a glass to the fish: “Here’s to herring … It’s really kept Russia going all these years.”
I didn’t know we were going to keep going with the toasts. “Endless toasts,” he says. “It’s so annoying, but it has to be done.”
Getting in on the toasting action, I lift my glass: “To the good health of your son—”
“To Johnny and to Felix,” he interrupts. “May they get into Saint Ann’s or whatever the hell.”
We settle the tab. He notes with pleasure the lesbian couple beside us as a happy affront to Putin—“Take that, Sochi”—and crosses 52nd Street and into an earlier phase of life. We head into the Russian Samovar. “I haven’t been back in years.”