A Review of Gary Shteyngart’s “Our Country Friends”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, there have been novels published about other plagues that seem eerily relevant to current times. Emma Donoghue published a book last year, The Pull of the Stars, that was set during the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak. And, of course, I reviewed a book earlier this year called The End of Men, which is set during a fictitious future viral outbreak that kills off 90 percent of the world’s male population. However, I don’t think there’s been a novel set during the current pandemic — until now. Gary Shteyngart, of Super Sad True Love Story fame, has published a novel called Our Country Friends that is set from March to September of 2020. While COVID is unnamed in the book, this is a work that is meant for the “right now” era. It’s a novel that’s not only about the lethal virus but about white nationalism and terrorism, among other potential things.
Our Country Friends is something like a Russian-style novel of years yore, just updated for modern times, as it is set almost entirely on the property belonging to one Sasha Senderovsky, a Russian-born novelist. He lives in a house on a hill in upper New York State with his psychologist wife and precocious eight-year-old adopted daughter. At the outset of the book, Senderovsky has invited a group of his closest friends and friends-of-friends to his home, as he has several bungalows ringing the main residence to shelter them. The goal is to wait out the pandemic, which they think will be over in weeks if not days (ha!), but Senderovsky has a hidden motive for the gathering. He has invited a Hollywood actor, named only as The Actor in the book (but who has all the mannerisms of a middle-aged Alec Baldwin, which is a little unfortunate given recent events), to help him work on a screenplay for a television show based on one of his novels. Sooner than you can say the word “intubation,” everyone is hopping into everyone else’s pants and panties, despite not keeping to physical distancing requirements. (But, then again, they are sort of all in quarantine together, so maybe it’s okay.)
This novel winds up being a slyly funny and slightly devastating book. I read Super Sad True Love Story when it was released about a decade ago and remember only that I gave it a nine out of 10 for a popular webzine that I was writing for at the time,and that it was kind of funny. Thus, I generally like Shteyngart’s writing and appreciated the fact that, here, he was writing to a deadline. After all, he recounts the George Floyd murder and subsequent #BlackLivesMatter movement, so elements of this book’s plot must have been written in real-time. That Shteyngart largely pulls this massive feat off is astonishing to see on the printed page. If you’re looking at pure characters, however, The Actor steals every page that he’s on. (It’s a good thing we see a fair amount of him.) While we’re on the subject, the others who have gathered around the lead character do seem a tad bit unlikable and self-absorbed at the novel’s outset, but they become fully fleshed characters with their own quirks as the novel comes on, and there’s a certain three-dimensionality that the author brings to life in them here.
Sadly, though, for all its positive attributes, Our Country Friends never really takes off and becomes something more than a mediocre book. Part of the reason is that there’s a subplot involving a black pickup truck that’s haunting (and possibly hunting) the main characters of this work that’s never successfully resolved. It’s like Shteyngart had an idea he was running with but was unsure how to handle it fully. That’s one thing. The other thing is that the last little bit of the book is one long fever dream that gets dragged out through chapter after chapter. This gets a little wearying. I know that this is meant to deliver a heavy blow for the fate of one character, but it winds up putting a distance between the reader and the printed page. Our Country Friends is a little overblown and can’t decide if it wants to be (dead) serious or something a little zingier and uplifting given the tumultuous nature of our times. It seems as though Our Country Friends wants its cake and wants to eat it, too.
Still, even though this is not a perfect read by any stretch of the imagination, there is enough here for it to warrant a curio look. Again, the fact that this novel is set a year and a half ago for the most part makes it extremely relevant and current. Shteyngart should win an award for being probably the first to get a novel about COVID-19 out to the marketplace. And there’s enough humor mixed in with the pathos to bring a smile to any reader’s face. Having said all of that, this didn’t affect me to the level of Super Sad True Love Story, even if I have no recollection of what that novel was all about. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but, in some ways, it feels as though Our Country Friends is unfinished, particularly given the fact that we’re still in the middle of this pandemic and it has only been a recent trend that pandemic health guidelines have only just begun to get relaxed for the vaccinated in the part of the world in which I live (Ottawa, Canada). So, take all of this as you will. Read Our Country Friends for its topical nature and warped Russian humour or avoid it like the plague because it’s not quite as well-rounded as it could be. Whatever the case, one thing is for certain: Our Country Friends is one of the first books out of the gate about life during the current situation, and whether it will go down in history for other reasons, such as being a good read, well, who knows? That doesn’t take away this novel’s ambitions, but one must wonder if those ambitions are the sole reason for this one’s existence. In the end, I’m just sayin’. But, if you want, check this book out.
Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends was published by Random House on November 2, 2021.
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