If comedy springs from childhood misery, Gary Shteyngart, one of the funniest writers in America, must have had a truly awful childhood.
And so he did, as we learn in his simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking new memoir, "Little Failure."
Even before his family immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union when he was 7, Shteyngart was a melancholy, lonely little boy.
Later he would be a melancholy, lonely young man.
He drank too much, smoked too much marijuana, couldn't keep a job or a girlfriend, and was, in general, a hot mess — a fact his own mother acknowledged when, in her inimitable Russian-Jewish immigrant fashion, nicknamed him "Failurchka."
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With the help of 12 years of psychoanalysis, Shteyngart is a failure no longer. After his first novel, "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," appeared in 2002, he went on to write the best-selling "Absurdistan" (2006) and "Super Sad True Love Story" (2010). But in "Little Failure," he tells the super sad true story of his life until recently — including the disconcerting tale of his relationship with a woman who attacked one of her later boyfriends with a hammer.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Shteyngart, 41, for a phone interview from his home in New York City. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: What can you tell us about the book-jacket photograph, which is of you as a small and rather miserable-looking child sitting in a toy car?
A: It was taken in Leningrad. At the time you would take your kid to a photo studio where they had all the latest marvels of Soviet technology set up. The studio freaked me out completely. I was very scared, and the thing I was most scared of was this car. Most boys would grasp the steering wheel and go, "vroom, vroom!" But I'm just sitting there, very taken aback. I only learned how to drive this year, actually, and I'm 41.
Q: You're wearing what seems to be a sailor's suit.
A: Yeah. The horrible thing they did to Soviet boys at that time was put them in sailor outfits. There are hundreds of pictures of me wearing sailor outfits, in fact. It's been hard to live that down. Anyway, in the picture I had asthma and looked exhausted. It kind of captures the "meh" feeling I had, already, that life wasn't all that great.
Q: Working our way forward from the book jacket to the dedication page, I see that you dedicated the book to your parents. Have they read the book?
Q: Will they?
A: Probably. I think it would be easier for them if it gets translated into Russian, as some of my books have been.
Q: So their English is still not great?
A: Well, their Russian is certainly better.
Q: And how will they react, do you think, to your portrayals of them, which aren't exactly flattering?