It’s a disgustingly humid day outside of Russ & Daughters Cafe, the sit-down restaurant that opened on the 100th anniversary of the famous Lower East Side Jewish appetizing spot of the same name. But inside, it’s as smoothly comforting as the set of a 1950s prestige television show, all gleaming white counters and sage-green leather booths.
From the moment we sit down, it’s clear that Gary Shteyngart is much better at drinking than I am. It’s just past 2 p.m. and Shteyngart, the acclaimed author of Super Sad True Love Story, Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, suggests we order both the Breakfast Martini, a favorite of his, and the Smoked Martini, which pairs gin, Belvedere, Lillet, Cocchi Americano and a Laphroaig rinse. We follow that up with just about all of the herring on the menu, including one item that comes with yet more booze.
The Schmaltz & a Shot—herring, onion and potato with a shot of vodka, or, in this case, two—arrives first. “Should we do this the traditional Russian way?” Shteyngart asks. I gamely reply in the affirmative without knowing what that actually entails. “OK,” he points at the potato, onion and silver and pink chunk of fish, “so this is the thing you follow it with.” He picks up the shot glass. “Theoretically you’re supposed to drink the whole shot at one go, but we can pace ourselves.” Making a toast is part of doing this the traditional way, he explains, so he offers one in Russian, then translates, “That’s a simple toast, to herring!”
Shteyngart, who was born in St. Petersburg and immigrated with his parents to the United States when he was seven, has made a name for himself writing about people from his home country. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook is a biting satire of novels based in the immigrant experience; Absurdistan delves into the world of Russian oligarchs; and Super Sad True Love Story, while set in a dystopian New York, follows the son of a Russian immigrant. All three novels incorporate openly autobiographical aspects of Shteyngart’s own life and relationship to the country he left. For the moment, however, he’s done with writing about Russia. “I’m tired of it,” he says, “I’ve done so much Russian stuff, Jesus.”
Lake Success, his newest novel, centers instead on the hedge fund world in New York and involved five years of research in which Shteyngart embedded himself with a cadre of all-too-familiar finance guys. It ended up taking a toll on him, and despite the fact that it’s a quarter after 2 p.m. and we’re already two shots deep, he insists he’s been trying to drink less. “I can drink, but I’d come home at three or four in the morning just wasted,” he says of the many nights he spent trying to keep up with his subjects. “There was one instance where I couldn’t unbutton my shirt and my wife had to help me. I was really pathetic.”
The book, which follows a failing hedge fund manager named Barry Cohen on a cross-country Greyhound trip, is full of drinking. And much of it based on first-hand experience: While writing the book, Shteyngart took the same trip, making his way west to El Paso, Texas, where two of his favorite bars are located. One is Tap Bar, a dive which has, he says, “all the ambience that bars always try to get artificially.” The other is Kentucky Club, just over the border in Juarez. “A lot of the businessmen, the intelligentsia come there… [and] there’s a trough—it’s now dry, thankfully, but back in the old days, men would unzip after drinking themselves stupid and just pee into the trough. The dry ghosts of patriarchy past.”
The other two drinks have arrived while we’ve been talking, and we stop for a moment to try them. “This is my favorite,” Shteyngart says of the Breakfast Martini, “because it makes me feel like I’m not an alcoholic—I’m just having breakfast. You get egg whites, lots of protein, some juice.” We move on to the Smoked Martini. “Oh, that’s good, too!” He exclaims. He asks what’s in it and confirms one of the ingredients is Laphroaig. “Oh, that brings us back around, that one’s a hedge fund drink.”
As though on cue, latkes arrive. The kitchen very kindly sent them over, perhaps sensing something heavier than fish was needed to soak up all the booze. As we dig in, I ask about the many real-life New York City bars in Lake Success. One in particular, Clandestino—a small, low-key, tin-ceilinged bar on Canal Street—has been his local since it opened. It is still his favorite bar in New York City.
“It was the one bar where everybody was cool,” he says, recalling when he first walked in there the week he moved to the neighborhood, now almost 10 years ago. “The owner’s wonderful, she’s this French woman. And there’s Jeffrey the bartender… If something terrible ever happened to me, he’d be the first to know; I’d go down there and have a double or quadruple and tell him about whatever it was.”
During his research for the book, he introduced “some of the nicer hedge fund guys” to Clandestino, and they loved it. “The funny thing is, a lot of the lives these guys lead are lives you would never want in a million years, for anybody,” he says, almost wistfully. He describes them as raucous and indulgent, full of expensive whiskey and fine dining, but—just as in the case of Lake Success’ protagonist Barry—ultimately hollow, a bunch of people trapped by their self-image and obligations. In fact, the main takeaway from his research into the hedge fund world is how little joy it really offers, and how it makes the less gilded, accessible pleasures—a bar like Clandestino or the herring at Russ & Daughters, for instance—feel more precious.
“All the great places in New York are not that expensive—I mean, relatively speaking—and this is one of them,” he says. “I think when you insulate yourself with wealth to such an extent, life is miserable.”
Shteyngart picks up his drink, nearly empty by now, and takes one last sip, looking around the room before setting it on the table. He gestures at the mess of food and drink we’ve accumulated, as though to drive the point home. “In the end… you don’t need that much: a good bar and some decent herring, and you’re kind of set.”