Three Days of Vodka With Gary Shteyngart

A boozy trip down memory lane—and through Russian history—with the author of Little Failure.

Gary Shteyngart at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
Gary Shteyngart.

Photo courtesy Mark Coggins/Creative Commons

The novelist Gary Shteyngart rolls down a wet West 52nd Street and swings into a brashly lacquered piano bar called the Russian Vodka Room. It’s a bit after 6 on the first Saturday night of 2014. Eastern Orthodox Christmas is two days off, so he’s settling in at a bar festooned with white bunting and silver tinsel. He waggles elastic eyebrows.

In his past are three smart and funny books—The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), Absurdistan (2006), and Super Sad True Love Story (2010), each in its own way a euphoric cruise through a dystopian vision. In his very recent past is mailing a copy of his new book, a memoir titled Little Failure, to its primary dedicatees, the parents who brought him into the world in Leningrad and brought him to New York at the age of 7. Growing up in Queens, little Gary knew the kiss of his father’s fist and the choke of his mother’s coldness. In the note he sent to his parents with the book, he said, I love you, and without the things you say, I would have never been a writer. He already gave a copy to the third person listed on his dedication page, his psychoanalyst, who reads slowly.

In his future is the publication, on the first Tuesday in January, of this book, Little Failure, which is already a hit. Reviewers have admired its confessions of fear and desire, its reckoning with personal and historical traumas, its caustic analysis of its very own pleas for love. In his future is an epic stretch of selling his soulfulness in interviews and at bookstores. He’s up for anything—“a publicist’s dream,” says his publicist, dreamily—so he goes everywhere. In his future are 146 days of book tour, punctuated by returns to New York to teach a writing class at Columbia and, in flight, drafting a pilot for a TV version of Super Sad. This is a lot for a man his age—“41, which is 74 in Russian years”—to take on. “I wish I were still 31,” he will say five hours later. “Damn. I could still do all that and do coke. In fact, the coke helped. I have friends who can still do that. I’m like, ‘What the fuck?! I didn’t go to Bard College. I went to Oberlin.’ ”

Gary Shteyngart picks up a menu printed with the Russian Vodka Room’s logo, in which the savage hammer and sickle garnish a cocktail served up at the center of a Soviet star. Across the room, a fat man limbers his fingers and eyes a black piano. Gary Shteyngart receives his brief: The job tonight is to help me explain to myself and everyone exactly what vodka is.

Of course, everyone knows what vodka is. Defined by law to be a neutral spirit “as tasteless and odorless as possible,” it is the best-selling liquor in the U.S.—“the backbone of the spirits industry.” You don’t need Gary Shteyngart to tell you why such a bland booze should be so successful, but he’s here, so why not? “It’s utility. Vodkas mix well because they have so little personality.”

Around the world, vodka is an icon and emblem of Russia, where it is variously lyricized and decried, both a poem and a problem. There could have been vodka without Russia; both Poland and Ukraine have staked plausible claims of historical precedence. But there could not have been the grandeur of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, nor the evil of the USSR, nor the mystery of the steppes, nor the mystique of the onion dome, without vodka. “It’s the curse and liberation of Russia,” as the British writer Colin Thubron once put it. Gary thinks of Russia’s relationship with vodka in parallel terms: “It’s very Homer-Simpsonian: The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

The Russian Vodka Room lists 44 commercial vodkas on its menu, including Smirnoff (the pioneer licensed for U.S. consumption in the 1930s), Tito’s (distilled in Texas), and Ciroc (from Diddy, because every third celebrity has a vodka these days; recent weeks have brought news of labels launched by a retired Piston, a former Patriot, and New Hampshire’s Old Man in the Mountain). “The difference among vodkas is not that great,” Gary says, “but Russian Standard is the best. It doesn’t have a story about how it’s been triple-filtered through a diamond in a rhinoceros’s asshole, but it gets the job done.”

We, however, are here to drink the house-infused stuff. You may have gotten the idea—what with recent atrocities regarding vodkas flavored to taste of whipped cream and peanut butter and shopping-mall cinnamon buns—that infused vodkas are relatively new and very often gross, but distillers have been at it since the 1400s, and there is nobility in the tradition. Ordering in Russian, Shteyngart gets us a 7-ounce carafe of the horseradish and a few bites to eat.

The vodka arrives. He pours it but does not drink. “We’re gonna wait for some toasts.” The booze cannot go into his mouth until a proper salute has flowed from his heart—and the drinks cannot go down the hatch until the barman puts out our food, our zakuski: “that which you follow the vodka with.” The most important part of Russian drinking is Russian eating. A zakuska is a sine qua non, with an exception allowed for very tough economic times, when it’s acceptable to chase the vodka with a sniff of your own overcoat.

While we wait, we talk about politics, about the totally insane role vodka has played in Russian history. Stalin used it as a truth serum and a torture device. Gorbachev assured himself the displeasure of the people by undertaking a temperance campaign as his first official act. Peter the Great really liked to party. According to a new book titled Vodka Politics, Peter’s travesty of a court—a group he dubbed the Drunken Council of Fools and Jesters—commonly enjoyed noontime luncheons at which everyone got wasted before the soup course and stayed that way for three or four days. Gary thinks that Dan Savage’s boycott of Russian vodka (on the grounds of Putin’s anti-gay measures) is a nice symbolic gesture that won’t change a thing: “If you could boycott natural gas, now that would be something.”

The kitchen is slow—“Now I’m really dying to drink this”—and while we wait, Gary scrolls through the photos on his phone. These are mostly pictures of his 3-month-old kid, and we chat about our sons while he searches for a photo of himself sloppily embracing an old friend after a recent vodka night. The image illustrates his memoir’s hairy intimacy—“the kind of candor you get at 5 in the morning after two bottles of vodka have been drunk by two men. You just open up. Don’t try this at home.”

The zakuski arrive and he raises a toast: “To all socialists everywhere and also de Blasio.” We eat meat dumplings and pickled mushrooms and herring under the coat, which involves fish smothered in sour cream and je ne sais quoi: “It’s one of the sadder things, but I love it,” he says, and then he raises a glass to the fish: “Here’s to herring … It’s really kept Russia going all these years.”

I didn’t know we were going to keep going with the toasts. “Endless toasts,” he says. “It’s so annoying, but it has to be done.”

Getting in on the toasting action, I lift my glass: “To the good health of your son—”

“To Johnny and to Felix,” he interrupts. “May they get into Saint Ann’s or whatever the hell.”

We settle the tab. He notes with pleasure the lesbian couple beside us as a happy affront to Putin—“Take that, Sochi”—and crosses 52nd Street and into an earlier phase of life. We head into the Russian Samovar. “I haven’t been back in years.”

This once was Gary’s regular joint. When he was a teenager, his parents’ idea of eating out was Sizzler, and going to place like the Samovar, owned in part by Mikhail Baryshnikov, was just a dream. When he grew up, he made the dream a reality. Once, taking a date to the Samovar just after his first book came out, he was introduced to Philip Roth, who was, though polite, not necessarily interested in what Shteyngart had to say. He was, however, interested in Gary’s date, which Gary chalks up to Roth being Roth: “That’s the guy I love.”

“They’ve really classed the place up,” Gary says, settling at the bar and noting the programming on the two televisions above it. (“Football, ballet.”) There is a platinum blonde at a white piano. There is a question about my expense budget.

“Is this beyond Slate.com’s reach?” He’s holding a menu in one hand and with the other pointing to the phrase salmon caviar. “Cuz honestly.”

“Because honestly what?”

“Because: Honestly? It’s time to have some caviar.”

Speaking in Russian, he orders a shot of house-made horseradish vodka for himself and a shot of pepper vodka for me. I’ve had pepper vodka in mind since reading (in Patricia Herlihy’s Vodka: A Global History) that Stolichnaya—the trailblazer of the premium vodka market—only began producing such a product at Khrushchev’s insistence. “I always hated that name,” Gary says. Stolichnaya Vodka translates as the vodka of the capital city, and its label features a landmark of Moscow, which usurped his hometown’s place in 1918. “To me, in some weird metaphysical way, St. Petersburg is still the capital. What if St. Petersburg had always been the capital? Could Stalin have taken power?”

The bartender delivers the shots. The kitchen is taking its time with our caviar and the spongy blini to wrap it in. Gary lowers his nose to the glass and wets his beak, just a bit. “Technically, you’re supposedly to down the whole thing. Men shouldn’t sip.” When the food comes, he toasts: “To the friendship of the literary people—this toast will be very Russian in its sentimentality—nobody respects us anymore but we must fight to preserve our way of life.”

The bartender reappears: “Two more shots, yes, why not?”

“Yes, why not.”

We chat about the Russian diminutive. Vodka means little water, just as Failurchka, the nickname bestowed on Gary by his mother, means little failure. But even his parents’ nontoxic terms of endearment were belittling suggestions that he was nothing more than an extension of them. “That’s who I am in their eyes. It’s both good and bad.” The good part involved being a little boy with his face in his father’s chest hair or his hand on his mother’s hem: “As flawed as they were, that was safety.”

A second bartender appears. She comes to understand that some form of journalism is in progress and insists on pouring two complimentary shots of horseradish vodka: “You give us good review, yes?” Gary toasts to the zakuska of the moment, a basket of pickles: “To the produce of the land, be it artisanal or locavore …”

It’s time to split: “Let’s leave Russia for the occupied land of Ukraine.” We have a dinner reservation downtown, and catch a cab for a trip to a new branch of Taras Bulba, “the first U.S. outpost of a popular chain in Moscow and Kiev.” The restaurant takes its name from a Gogol novella. “I’ve never read it,” Gary says, feeling like a peasant for not having done so. “My father loves that book.”

I remark on the Russian tendency to name restaurants after books and authors; we could have passed this evening at a cozy place named for a Chekhov play or an apocalyptically gaudy one named for a Pushkin epic. “Cultures with great food don’t do that,” Gary observes. “There’s no Dante Pappardelle or Bouillabaisse Flaubert or Paella Cervantes. When you have to have literature for food, that’s sad.”

A promo for Parks & Recreation flashes on the TV in the back of the cab. “Is that my girl? Is that Rashida Jones?” The actress is among the talent appearing in the Little Failure book trailer. “She’s so smart and beautiful.” He turns off the TV.

In the men’s room at Taras Bulba, Gary discovers a jolly reappropriation of a Soviet anti-alcohol poster from the 1950s: In the original, a healthy young man at a dinner table is just saying nyet to a glass of a colorless liquid. In this version, he is refusing a hamburger. I wind around to mentioning Patricia Herlihy’s theory that Nicholas II hastened his overthrow by prohibiting vodka during World War I: He wanted his soldiers to show up sober, so he banned vodka nationwide, forgetting that taxes on it brought in about 30 percent of his country’s revenue. Thus, he encountered money troubles, and some soldiers arrived at the front with no rifles. Meanwhile, no one stopped drinking. Everyone just made bootleg vodka instead. This used up a lot of grain:

In February 1917 women protesting the shortages of flour sparked the first phase of the revolution that ultimately forced the Tsar to abdicate. Eight months later, the Bolsheviks seized power.

Speaking in Russian, Gary orders us two shots of pertsovka, which is a spicy subset of gorilka, which is the Ukraine’s full-bodied contribution to the vodka world. For zakuski we have salo, lovely lard strips: “I would like to toast to the pig that gave its life to be wrapped around a scallion in SoHo. What a sad end.”

There’s another toast, another horseradish vodka. On the table is an Olivier salad, the history of which is better understood by checking out Wikipedia than consulting the author: “I’ve been so haunted by this thing, I can’t even look into roots.” I think it’s delicious. “My mother’s version is better,” he says.

Taras Bulba sends its customers off with a complimentary shot and instructions to tap a foot against a horseshoe for luck. The manager explains this as a Cossack tradition.* Gary puts the tradition in historical context: “Let’s go, guys! We’re about to pogrom some Jews.”

We cab it to Canal Street and his regular bar, which is named Clandestino, and he orders his regular drink, “which no Russian would ever own up to drinking.” Having spent my expense budget and overspent the rest of me, I leave him there with his vodka tonic and his favorite bartender and the wood paneling that reminds him of the aspirational interior of his parent’s place in Little Neck, Queens, across the bay from the big action.

* * *

“I lost a lot of stuff last night,” he tells me on Sunday afternoon. “I lost my hat, my sense of self …” It’s a bit after 3, and we are at the start of a walking tour of Gary’s teenage years—his tenure as one of the lowliest students at the city’s most elite public school. Twenty-odd contest winners are gathered on a sidewalk in damp Manhattan, outside of Stuyvesant High School’s old campus. He’s clutching a signpost like some kind of an alien convention delegate. The sign features the same black-and-white photo of year-old Gary that appears on the memoir’s jacket—excitable boy, miniature convertible—and it bears an all-caps slogan: FAILURE IS AN OPTION. He is rattling a bottle of Ativan available to anyone who feels as nervous as he does: “I’m not a licensed MSW but what the hell? And also …”

And also: One of the contest winners—Melissa Freeman, a librarian from Fort Worth, Texas—has some coffee-infused vodka to share and some vanilla chai to mix it with. When I ask Melissa about the coffee infusion, she shows me a text message she’d gotten from her rabbi.

Rabbi Rose’s Coffee Vodka
(Uptown Chabad, Dallas, Texas)

One 750-milliliter bottle of Tito’s Vodka
Whole coffee beans (enough to fill one-third of the vodka bottle)
Agave nectar (optional)

“Take hella coffee beans ’n’ throw ’em in a bottle, ’n’ then add a li’l squirt of agave,” says Rabbi Rose. Give the bottle a shake every now and again. When the beans sink to the bottom of the bottle, it’s ready. Expect a “maximum tasty infusion” to take about three days.

Recommended application: Mix with Bolthouse Farms vanilla chai to taste. Speaking of taste: Would it be offensive to name this drink the Jewish Russian?

There is kismet in that taste of coffee. As Melissa and her plus-one pour the drinks, Gary points the crowd to a scene in his book, a passage devoted to his tenure as a high school slacker who drank way too much: He and a friend would “buy diner coffee cups in bulk, the ones with the Greek-styled legend WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU, and fill them with Kahlua and milk so that the school guards think we’re sipping coffee with a drop of cream.”

Obviously, vodka is a go-to liquor for teenagers and all other people who like to drink when they shouldn’t be drinking. This is the phenomenon Smirnoff winked at, decades ago, in an ad campaign promising that its product—odorless as can be—would “leave you breathless.” Thus, Gary’s adolescent liquid lunches evoked the whole complicated paradox of his filial bond: “Vodka felt like a strange affirmation of my parents,” he told me. “Most people drink partly because of their family, and this was a direct connection.”

Swanning his FAILURE IS AN OPTION sign above the heads of Manhattan’s pedestrians, Gary leads us from the school to the park bench where he had his first kiss and through his nostalgia for what Manhattan used to be. “The people you see walking around? These weren’t people. They were just crack vials.” On St. Mark’s Place, he buys a one-hitter. At Russ & Daughters, he gorges on herring. And at the end of memory lane is a vodka tonic at his regular bar. Gary thanks his new friends for joining him here. “This is the place in New York City where I feel the safest.”

And then Monday is Christmas. A bit after 7 p.m. on Jan. 6, Gary is holding a vodka tonic in one hand and shaking mine with the other. How’s his day going? “The last two hours have been pretty great. Michiko’s improved, she’s really improved.” From this I correctly infer that the Times review has come in: “Mr. Shteyngart’s evocative new memoir, ‘Little Failure,’ is as entertaining as it’s moving. …” One less thing for the man to worry about.

This is the book party, sponsored by Interview Magazine (Gary chats with his pal Francine Prose in the current issue) and Ketel One Vodka (“Vodka companies love sponsoring me”). What cocktails is Ketel One pushing tonight? A lot of people seem to like the “cucumber julep” (vodka, cucumber juice, simple syrup, mint leaves), and I think less of them for it. Boring.

There’s a “Yule mule” (vodka, cranberry juice, lime juice, orange bitters, ginger beer), which is my cue to tell you that vodka first became popular in the U.S. because of the Moscow Mule: In 1940s Los Angeles, a restaurateur who’d ordered too much ginger beer got together with a guy who’d begun to fear that buying the rights to the Smirnoff name had been a bad investment. They put one and one together, assembled a star-studded ad campaign, and here we are. Great story, but I cannot recommend the Yule mule.

If you happen to go back in time and decide to hit this party, ask for a Ketel One Fall Back Buck (lemon vodka, lime juice, simple syrup, pineapple juice, ginger beer, Angostura bitters). Refreshing!

This is not a very opulent book party, but it is a good one. Some of the city’s top book-party animals are in attendance. I ask Liesl Schillinger if she has any thoughts on the tradition of vodka in Russia. “The tradition of vodka in Russia is men walking home at 11 in the morning looking like they’re wriggling hula hoops,” she says, angrily, while wobbling an invisible hula hoop. “It’s hilarious to me that people pay so much for premium vodka. I have seen people literally drink acetone.”

It is a good party, but Sloane Crosley is standing here telling me that there is no one to give a toast to the author! It’s generally the role of an editor or agent to do such a thing, but they are absent or demurring. I’m like, “Get Salman to do it.” But Salman’s all, “I haven’t read the book. I can’t give a toast if I haven’t read the book. That would be like a Gary Shteyngart blurb.” And Francine Prose won’t do it because she knows she’ll cry. And so the party ebbs and ends without a proper salute to the author.

When the party is over, Gary helps his wife into her fur and strolls over to the restaurant adjacent to his regular bar. Four friends and I follow. They will be staying for dinner; I just need to buy a round of vodka shots. There’s a house-made beet-infused vodka? Very nice. Oh, and a plate of pickles, please.

“I would like to toast to Gary Shteyngart on the occasion of his wonderful memoir. As a reader, I honor your courage and your candor and your wit; as a writer, I burn with black envy for your abilities; as a reporter, I am extremely grateful that you are a quote machine. Let us drink to your good health and great fortune.”

It went over well. “That’s great, Troy. Thanks. You may have a bit of Russian in you.”

Correction, Jan. 8, 2014: This article originally stated that tapping a foot against a horseshoe for luck is a Kazakh tradition, setting up a quote that implied that pogroming Jews is also a Kazakh tradition. Tapping a foot against a horseshoe for luck is a Cossack tradition.