Man wearing mask signs books
Jewish American writer Gary Shteyngart signs copies of his new novel "Our Country Friends" at BookShop West Portal in San Francisco on Nov. 11, 2021. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

On book tour, novelist Gary Shteyngart is happy to be out of the house

“My tours used to be 15 to 20 cities, but because of Covid it’s like five or six,” a masked Gary Shteyngart told a small but enthusiastic crowd of fans at San Francisco’s BookShop West Portal on Nov. 11. “I wish I could do the whole schmear.”

The Soviet-born, New York-based, Jewish American writer is currently on the West Coast promoting his new novel, “Our Country Friends.” Although he’s doing an abbreviated tour, in light of the ongoing pandemic, he seemed positively giddy to be out of the house. Case in point: He gushed about the “great meal” he had on his flight to San Francisco, his first time on a plane since the pandemic began.

“I’m so nostalgic for travel that I’m romanticizing airplane food,” he said to chuckles.

BookShop billed the event as a book signing only, but the author indulged a request to read the opening pages of “Our Country Friends,” a novel set in 2020 about eight people who seek refuge during a pandemic at the upstate New York property of a Russian American (and, yes, Jewish) novelist named Sasha Senderovsky and his psychiatrist wife, Masha. In a review for the New York Times, critic Molly Young wrote that the book “is a perfect novel for these times and all times, the single textual artifact from the pandemic era I would place in a time capsule as a representation of all that is good and true and beautiful about literature.”

As he read, Shteyngart provided commentary about the real-life inspiration for various scenes. Like his protagonist, Sasha, he said he only learned to drive later in life, at age 43. “It’s hard,” he said. “Although I’m really bad at driving, I still like to drive fast because I’m from the city and I get anxious!” He credited the sensors on his newish Volvo for helping him avoid getting into accidents.

Setting the book down, he proceeded to schmooze with attendees in English and Russian, his glasses perpetually fogged up from having to keep his mask on at all times, per the store’s policy. He signed a book by Anton Chekhov that a woman had brought with her (Shteyngart has talked about his admiration for the Russian short story writer), as well as the back of a man’s e-reader.

I’m so nostalgic for travel that I’m romanticizing airplane food.

He took a swig from a small bottle of homemade Georgian brandy, known as “chacha,” that a man in a “Tbilisi” T-shirt gifted to him. A luxury watch aficionado, he tried on and carefully inspected the clearly very expensive watches of two different men. “Sorry, watch nerd stuff had to happen!” he announced to those patiently waiting in line to meet him.

“I have a really sweet relationship with my readers, for many different reasons,” he explained to J. later in the evening, as he signed BookShop’s entire stock of the new novel. “Some had the same experiences [as me], as Soviet Jews. Some share the same hobbies and weird stuff as I do, like watches.”

He traced this relationship back to his days at the Solomon Schechter day school in Queens. “The first thing I wrote in America was ‘The Genorah,’ a satire of the Torah, back in Schechter,” he said. “That made me my first American friends, and since then I feel a kinship with my readers.”

One such reader, Jared Boigon of San Francisco, told J. that he considers Shteyngart to be on the same level as the great Jewish American novelist Philip Roth. “We’re the same age, and I feel like he’s living in my brain,” said Boigon, 49. “It’s nice to read something that articulates my thoughts so well.”

A Jewish journalist would have been remiss not to ask Shteyngart about the essay he published in the New Yorker last month about the botched circumcision he received upon his arrival in the United States, at the urging of local Chabad rabbis, and its long-term complications. “Most poorly performed circumcisions stem from two misjudgments on the part of the circumciser: either too much or too little foreskin is removed,” he writes. “In my case, it was too little (and, one might add, given that I was seven years old instead of the eight days prescribed by the Torah, too late).”

He said he felt comfortable opening up about such an intimate topic because he believes his job as a writer is to be as honest as possible. “I felt that I had gone through something really horrific, and I thought it would be almost negligent of me not to write about this experience,“ he said. He added that he felt secure in breaking the “code of silence” around poorly-performed circumcisions — which he said are more common than many might think, based on stories he has heard — because he’s married and has a child.

After the essay appeared, he said he was contacted by several rabbis from liberal streams of Judaism who sympathized with him and pledged to present male circumcision to Jewish parents as a choice rather than a religious obligation. “Some rabbis said, ‘We’re not going to push this anymore. We’re gonna say, it’s up to you.’”

A writer celebrated for his comedic touch in novels including “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” and “Super Sad True Love Story,” Shteyngart has leaned into phallic humor on social media of late. This week, for example, he shared two photos of the Salesforce Tower, which he referred to as “the San Francisco Penis.”

Speaking of San Francisco, Shteyngart said his parents almost moved to the city when they left the Soviet Union. “They considered San Francisco, but because of relatives that were living in Queens, they moved there instead,” he said. “Those were the two choices.” Then, in a joking nod to a famous, local, Russian Jewish, tech billionaire of his generation, he added, “I could have been Sergey Brin!”

“Our Country Friends” by Gary Shteyngart (Random House, 336 pages). This book is available from Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and other online retailers.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.