Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Our Country Friends’ is a throwback to where the social distancing era began

“Apart from the underrepresentation of poodles, a great novel”— Bisou

In the early days of the pandemic, there were groans about all the terrible fiction people would write about their time in isolation. There would, they feared, be cringey novels about, say, bookish Brooklynites regrowing scallions in their apartments. 

Gary Shteyngart’s 2021 novel, Our Country Friends, is, unapologetically, a pandemic novel. It spans a time period from when everyone thought the virus was spread via surfaces to one where it was known to be airborne. Masks, distancing, gloves, face shields, hand sanitizer, symptom spotting, preexisting conditions, it’s all in there.

It is also a fictional account of the summer 2020, when the story of the moment switched from COVID-19 to the police killing of George Floyd, sparking protests and racial reckonings in the United States and beyond. 

The book tells the story of a group of old friends, plus a couple newer, sexier, arrivals, who’ve fled New York City to a writer’s upstate bungalow colony. There is also a mildly troubled eight-year-old, the hosts’ daughter. (The child’s friendlessness, as a plot point, allows the isolation to proceed more smoothly.) 

The pandemic pod set-up means that one is spared the sterile Zoom cocktail party environment. It’s a novel full of physicality, of shared meals and surreptitious liaisons. Things can unfold in something of a before-times manner, except, you know, not.

The specifics of the plot—a (fictitious) love-potion app, a novel hidden in an old Teva sandal box and buried in a groundhog’s lair, a handsome A-list actor arriving and destroying the equilibrium—are clever, but ultimately less compelling than the glimpse the novel offers of a truly weird historical moment. 

More than anything, Our Country Friends is a portrait of a divided America. Blue versus red, urban versus rural. Cosmopolitan elites versus downtrodden rustics… or, possibly, striving unassimilable immigrants versus white Americans accepted wherever they go. Are the titular country friends the invited guests, the assembled group of friends, or an ironic reference to the menacing locals? 

Shteyngart, the author of novels including Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story, is known more recently for a personal essay he wrote for the New Yorker about his disastrous circumcision. He writes from the perspective of upwardly mobile children of immigrants, city-dwellers who might be cast as coastal elites one minute and despised as foreigners another. A Jewish story, but not only.

As such, their role in the countryside setting is fraught. The narrator sometimes refers to the writer, Sasha Senderovsky, as “the landowner,” with no small amount of irony. He’s about the opposite of a Barbour-clad gentry. He’s an urban Jew (St. Petersburg to Queens) mystified by country ways. And his ownership of the land is tenuous, hinging on the success of upcoming, ill-fated professional projects. His wife Masha, a psychiatrist, lights Shabbat candles and tries, often in vain, to get her husband’s friends to mask and distance. 

A “Dramatis Personae” page (there’s a Chekov motif) introduces them, along with the other characters. Eight are named. A ninth item: “Various American villagers.” The tensions between the friends and these villagers form the backdrop yet point of the novel. There are the regular mysterious appearances of a pickup truck, with a white, local, red-hat-wearing driver. 

“The first year they had bought the House on the Hill, after they had set out their nondenominational New Year’s tree, the handyman had said to the husband, “I didn’t figure you for Christmas-tree people.” He had smiled as he said it, but they both had lain awake that night, wondering what he meant.” 

They notice symbols, on tattoos and trucks, that might be neo-Nazi insignias, or possibly just from the U.S. Marines. The family has no clue who or what they’re dealing with, and are nervous. 

The possibility of more overt discrimination comes up for the guests, most of whom are Asian-American, and for Sasha and Masha’s daughter, who was adopted from China. Forays outside the property leave them on edge.

And yet! For the villagers themselves, who are these urbanites, showing up, bringing their fancy ways and higher real estate prices? And, although this does not explicitly come up, quite possibly bringing the virus to thus far protected locales?

The twist, then, comes from Dee, a 30ish former student of Sasha’s, and now a successful writer in her own right. Dee grew up Southern, small-town, and working-class, and has built her career on reminding people of this. Where her hosts and fellow guests are in the process of becoming culturally American, she’s on a different trajectory, making her way in the creative, professional, classes. The only one of the guests who feels comfortable amongst the villagers, she inadvertently (?) flaunts her country knowledge and her unaffected y’alls. 

Who, though, has the power here? It shifts, which is what makes the book so compelling. 

Dee has the scrappy bitterness of an underdog, but has relative youth, unquestioned whiteness, and physical beauty on her side. Also professional success: she instigates a privilege-measuring exercise, where she starts by announcing her own net worth, which she believes makes her a pauper relative to her host and his friends, but learns is far more than they had at her age, and more than one has, period. She may be of bumpkin origin, but is doing fine.

Until she isn’t. One might expect a millennial interloper character to be a voice of political correctness. Instead, Dee’s a contrarian, a provocateur, whose solidarity with the white working class gets interpreted as solidarity with the white working class during summer 2020’s racial reckoning. As the yard and business signs go up, establishing who thinks hate has no home here, and who thinks blue lives matter, Dee finds herself the subject of a furious social-media campaign, or, in shorthand, cancelled.  

What the author so flawlessly conveys is the symbiotic envy and feelings of superiority, in both directions. The sense of not knowing what the other side is talking about.

And in case you were wondering (I was wondering) whether the presence of a character named Karen (a Korean-American app inventor) would inspire any discussion of what “Karen” came to mean that summer, how about you will have to read to find out. 

So yes, the novel mentions COVID. As well it should. The pandemic has provided rich material in terms of the ethics of in-person interaction during a plague, but also of isolation, which brings its own share of dangers.