Our Country Friends a Covid Black Comedy



By Gary Shteyngart

Random House, 336 pages





Remember how there was a spate of novels about 9/11 once the shock and mourning faded? (My favorites were by Don DeLillo, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jess Walter.)  It may or may not be time for a Covid fiction now, but Gary Shteyngart has weighed in with Our Country Friends. It takes us back to the pandemic’s early days when fear was high and precise information was spotty. Shteyngart gets credit for a unique twist on matters–including large doses of black humor–though in my estimation his novel falls short of being a great one or equal to his past efforts such as Lake Success (2018) or Super Sad True Love Story (2010).


Shteyngart was born in the former Soviet Union and perhaps writes a bit of himself into lead character Sasha Senderovsky, a New York City-based script writer in his 50s who is in desperate need of revitalizing his flagging career. His plan is an unusual one; he and his wife Masha, a psychiatrist, and their precocious adopted Chinese daughter Natasha–who wants to be called “Nat”–flee the city when Covid hits and invest in a cluster of cabins in the Catskills with the notion of establishing a retreat for creative people. (I envisioned something along the lines of New Hampshire’s MacDowell Colony.) Sasha’s ulterior motive is to lure an acquaintance identified only as “The Actor” to stay there and convince him to rework one of Sasha’s old (and unsold) scripts into a TV comedy. He also invites his best friend Vinod Mehta, a former professor; social media influencer, essayist, and blonde knockout Dee; aging good-time playboy Ed Kim; and Korean-American app developer Karen Cho, a remote cousin of Ed.


It is typical of Sasha to impose upon those in his inner circle, as he’s at heart an egoist who uses people for his own aggrandizement. Dee is a former acting student of Sasha’s, for instance, and he’s so jealous of a book Vinod wrote that he told his putative “brother” that it was unpublishable. Sasha certainly has no clue about country living or anything as practical as a sensible budget. Locals know to smile when he buys expensive comestibles, gouge him for repairs, and stay off the highway when he’s behind the wheel, if one can dignify his high-speed weaves along county roads with the term driving. Sasha is convinced that he’s a popular guy, but the locals dislike him so much that seemingly threatening things occur.  


Masha is the resident virus-worrier even though everyone insists, “I don’t have it.” “It” is an appropriate term; if you recall, no one was sure was “it” was when it first appeared. As a literary device, though, you can pretty much predict that someone will have “it.” Plus, things go very wrong when Karen dusts off “Tröö Feelings,” allegedly a tool to help people figure out their attractiveness to each other, but which ends up being more of an aphrodisiac than an app. Try maintaining social distancing with that floating around.


Bet on hurt feelings, musical beds, personality clashes, discomforting revelations, and lots of stuff that goes wrong. Our Country Friends plays off various clashes–urban versus rural, immigrant versus native-born, art versus popular culture, and well-heeled snobs versus redneck, white, and blue-collar locals. The creatives and their circle are so out of place that their inherent flaws spin out like drunken tops. Even Nat has issues. She’s sullen, furious with her parents, is obsessed with K-pop, wants Karen to teach her Korean, and might be on the spectrum. Shteyngart overlays his modern morality play with references and parallels to Chekov, especially Uncle Vanya, and to The Decameron, Boccaccio’s 14th century collection of Black Death stories.  


Shteyngart’s novel is often quite funny, though perhaps not everywhere he thinks it is. There are plot devices that, depending upon your proclivities, are either deeply ironic or incredulity-stretching contrivances. I lean toward the second, especially when it comes to Tröö Feelings and a setup involving Steve the Groundhog. I’d call Our Country Friends an entertaining read, but an uneven one. I’ll leave to you to decide if that’s because it’s too soon for a comedy of manners about Covid.


Rob Weir

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