From the cover of "Lake Success" by Gary Shteyngart
From the cover of "Lake Success" by Gary Shteyngart

In new novels, Jewish characters navigate a complex world

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From Abraham onward, the vision of leaving home for something better is a familiar trope in Jewish history and literature. Two superbly written new novels bring their protagonists away from their familiar worlds, only to find that it’s not so easy.

Barry Cohen, the 43-year-old protagonist in Gary Shteyngart’s “Lake Success,” is the founding director of a large hedge fund. He lives with his much younger wife, Seema, and their son, Shiva, in a luxury Manhattan apartment.

Yet when we meet Barry, it is at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where, still drunk and bearing bloody scratches that testify to a disastrous evening, he is looking for a Greyhound on which to make a getaway.

Cover of "Lake Success" by Gary ShteyngartCohen recently has lost a great deal of his investors’ money, and the Securities and Exchange Commission suspects him of wrongdoing. But something more painful inspires his escape act: His marriage to Seema is unraveling. And Shiva’s autism is the source of such anguish that Barry can’t bring himself to utter the word. Unable to solve these problems by throwing money at them, Barry chooses to disappear.

He discards his credit card and phone, and travels across America with just some cash. His ostensible goal is to reconnect with a college girlfriend. He will find her, along with drugs, sex, theft and glimpses (the book is set in 2016) into the country that will elect Donald Trump as its president.

The tale of Barry’s odyssey is interspersed with scenes from Seema’s life in his absence, although her chapters lack the energy of Barry’s. Seema, a Hindu who understands Judaism better than Barry does, is in some respects nobler, particularly in her relationship to Shiva. But she engages in an affair with her neighbor, a writer from Guatemala, Luis, who is married to her friend.

The book is a remarkable departure for Shteyngart — his first in which there is no trace of his native Russia. That said, immigrants abound, along with questions of identity. For example, Barry cannot stomach that light-skinned Luis is considered Latino: “He noted that Luis Goodman the supposed Guatemalan was far paler than he was and, given his last name, probably just as Jewish.” And Seema bristles when Luis refers to her as a fellow immigrant, ignoring the fact that she was born in Ohio to Indian immigrants.

The decadence of the obscenely wealthy is an easy target for Shteyngart’s satirical eye. Within the first 30 pages, Barry has pulled out a $30,000 bottle of Japanese whiskey as a display of his manhood. But even as Barry is — within both his family and his society — more part of the problem than of the solution, Shteyngart doesn’t want us to detest him. He illustrates the vulnerability of this son of a pool cleaner father and a mother who died when he was 5, and of his fears of descending the ladder of success. But Barry seems unable to grasp the possibilities of redemption, in part because he is expert at deceiving himself and looking past the needs of others.

If Barry is “discovering” America, the characters in Tova Reich’s “Mother India” have elected to leave it entirely.

Despite a number of strong novels, Reich is insufficiently known, even among active readers of Jewish literature. This may be partly due to the darkly satirical nature of her novels, and because they tend to have an “insider” quality, with concerns and objects of satire that are familiar primarily to people with knowledge of Jewish religious life and communal politics.

Cover of "Mother India" by Tova ReichSuch familiarity remains valuable in appreciating “Mother India,” but, by setting the story in India, Reich is taking even her educated Jewish readers out of their comfort zone.

The novel revolves around the life of Meena, a Jewish American lesbian (and rabbi’s daughter) from Brooklyn who moved to India. Her marriage to a wealthy Hindu woman has collapsed, leaving Meena as the sole caretaker for her daughter, Maya.

The novel is divided into three sections. In the first, Meena’s mother, a lifelong Orthodox Jew, shocks her by coming to India in the final stages of cancer in order to opt for ritual cremation, in violation of Jewish law.

Surprisingly, the section about her mother is the lightest portion of the book, leavened by colorful characters. In the second section, Meena addresses her daughter directly in reflecting on the events of Maya’s childhood. This included a relationship with Mumbai’s Chabad House, both at the time of a massacre there in 2008 and during another traumatic episode later. After cutting ties to Chabad, they became followers of a famous guru, Amma, and Maya’s life took an unexpected turn.

The final section brings Meena to the compound in India where her brother, a charismatic Hasidic rabbi who has been kicked out of Israel for sexual misconduct, has brought his followers.

Reich’s satirical wit is plentiful, but while writer Cynthia Ozick’s cover blurb promises a book that is “passionate and hilarious,” I found it difficult to arouse my sense of humor in response to the often painful subject matter. The book offers poignant, and often biting, portrayals of both Jewish and Indian life, and inevitably causes us to examine why we turn to spiritual leaders. And central to the novel is motherhood, presented in its full range, from suffocation to being untethered or abandoned. It’s an unflinching and quite extraordinary work.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.