Gary Shteyngart, the Russian-born, New York-based writer, will appear Feb. 6 at Books and Books in Coral Gables. Taken on its own, that's a fairly unremarkable sentence. But for readers of Shteyngart's new memoir, "Little Failure," the fact that he's visiting Florida at all may come as a surprise.
In "Little Failure," which in painstaking and painfully funny detail chronicles the author's life before and after his family emigrated from Leningrad to New York in 1979, Shteyngart recalls several trips (one hesitates to call them "vacations") to Florida in the 1980s. The first, in 1986, found the author and his ever-on-the-verge-of-divorce parents piling into a sedan with another Russian family. Bound for Disney World and Miami Beach, they end up taking a detour to Fort Lauderdale, Shteyngart writes, "where a Yugoslav woman shelters us in a faded motel ... the Old World we have left behind so far and yet deceptively near." It's a postcard negative of a Florida the then 14-year-old Shteyngart hopes to experience: "I can see myself on a balcony eating a Big Mac, casually throwing fries over my shoulder into the sea-salted air. But I will have to wait."
A few years later, Shteyngart returns to Florida, this time to Sarasota, on "a jaunt that will inspire a long, scary chapter of my first novel ['The Russian Debutante's Handbook']." His chaperone is the 40-something owner of the company where Shteyngart works after school, a man whose attempted seduction of the boy — at one point, "Paulie" offers to buy his family a condo — horrifies and amuses him. "I laugh the way girls laugh when I try to put the moves on them," Shteyngart writes.
Given these episodes, a reader will be forgiven for believing Shteyngart would sooner discover Vladimir Putin snorkeling in his bathtub than feel so much as a ray of Florida sunshine.
"I cannot wait [to get there]," Shteyngart, whose best-selling novels include “Absurdistan” and “Super Sad True Love Story,” admits in a recent phone interview. "After freezing my butt off in all these other Northern cities [while on a book tour], I cannot wait."
While the Florida of the 1980s the writer presents in "Little Failure" may have been as bizarre and intimidating as he remembers, and it was, Shteyngart says the state's appeal to a Russian teenager was undeniable.
"Yalta's where Russians would go to vacation. It was a very proper, cultured kind of place with Chekhov statues everywhere — Chekhov wrote about Yalta and lived in Yalta — so that was my idea of what a Southern, sunny vacationland would be like," the author says. "But Florida was just pure neon. Palm trees looked like they were ready to explode with joy. It was unbelievable. The bikinis. You just felt like there was something so erotic going on. The ‘Miami Vice’ era was in force at that point. And I loved it. I wanted all of it. I look at pictures of myself around that time, and there’s all these pictures of me wearing these Don Johnson-like sunglasses. I was ready to embrace the Don Johnson lifestyle."
The Books and Books appearance will not be Shteyngart's first visit to Miami since the period he recounts in "Little Failure." In fact, he has kind words to share about "Mitch Kaplan's wonderful store," and vividly recalls a stay at the Mandarin Oriental, where he found himself at the pool surrounded by "junior Russian oligarchs and the women who love them."
He has no plan, however, to visit Sunny Isles Beach, where many of South Florida's Russian immigrants reside.
"I don't go there," Shteyngart says with a laugh. "Whenever I'm in America, I try to avoid the Russian communities. I stick to the American communities. That's more than enough."
Gary Shteyngart will appear 8 p.m. Feb. 6 at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., in Coral Gables. Call 305-442-4408 or go to BooksAndBooks.com.