Coming to America: Shteyngart writes first memoir

This book cover image provided by Random House shows "Little Failure," a memoir by Gary Shteyngart. In the book, Russian-American novelist Shteyngart offers a funny, honest memoir of an immigrant success story. (AP Photo/Random House) | Zoom

(AP) - "Little Failure: A Memoir" (Random House), by Gary Shteyngart

At age 41, Gary Shteyngart seems awfully young to be writing a memoir. But readers of "Little Failure" soon discover that he's been precocious all his life.

The book is Shteyngart's funny, often moving, chronicle of his family's journey from St. Petersburg, Russia, then known as Leningrad, to the U.S. in 1979. It's also a brutally honest record of his personal transformation from fearful, sickly child to angry, self-destructive youth to professional success and mensch.

Part of the wave of Soviet refuseniks, the Shteyngarts settled in Queens, N.Y., when young Igor _ Gary was the English approximation _ was just 7. Soon he was packed off to Hebrew school, where he was bullied by other kids and indoctrinated with religious Zionism. For a while, his father beat him, too.

Then one day, the geeky kid, who dreamed of being a cosmonaut in Russia and inhaled Isaac Asimov almost from the moment his family landed at JFK Airport, was asked to read aloud in class from his schoolboy attempt at a science fiction story.

Classmates were enthralled, his ostracism ended and the budding young writer appeared to be well on his way to the career that would bring him great fortune. But years of turmoil lay ahead: drugs, alcohol, failed romance, bad behavior, unsuitable jobs.

Meanwhile, he was also morphing from Reagan Republican to Obama Democrat, unthinking religious partisan to critic of Israel, drunk and stoned "Scary Gary" to loving husband and son.

Shteyngart gives a big shout out to psychoanalysis _ 12 years, four times a week _ for helping him learn to manage his unexamined sadness and rage.

As he prepared to write this book, he went back to Russia with his parents to try to plumb the depths of their pain. The urge to write a memoir was great, he explains, because of his overwhelming fear that he would die before they did, depriving him of the chance to express his love and gratitude.

The title, "Little Failure," is a nickname his mother bestowed on him soon after they moved to Queens. (His father called him "Snotty.") The mocking nature illustrates what he describes throughout the book _ the "supposedly funny banter with a twist of the knife." It's an ironic title, as well, because Shteyngart, the quintessential overachieving immigrant son, has succeeded beyond any parent's wildest dreams.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Top Stories

  • A Free Lunch
    For our lawmakers, there is such a thing as a free lunch, and a free dinner, and free drinks

  • Oso Clean
    An army of volunteers is making sure mudslide searchers get to put on warm, dry clothes
ATTENTION COMMENTERS: We've changed our comments, but want to keep you in the conversation.
Please login below with your Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Disqus account. Existing MyNorthwest account holders will need to create a new Disqus account or use one of the social logins provided below. Thank you.
comments powered by Disqus
Sign up for breaking news e-mail alerts from
In the community
Do you know a student who stands out in the classroom, school and community?
Help make their dreams come true by nominating them for a $1,000 scholarship and a chance to earn a $10,000 Grand Prize. Brought to you by KIRO Radio and Comprehensive Wealth Management.

Do you know an exceptional citizen who has impacted and inspired others?
KIRO Radio and WSECU would like to recognize six oustanding citizens this year. Nominate them to be recognized and to receive a $2,000 charitable grant.