At BAM, a slow, cozy roast for writer Gary Shteyngart
Tuesday night was a minor anniversary for the author Gary Shteyngart.
It was 10 years ago that published his first book, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and so with the help of a sponsorship from Riverhead, the firm that published his first but not his subsequent books, a "roast" was held in his honor at the elegantly decrepit Harvey Theater in the Brooklyn Academy of Music complex.
For $20 a ticket, guests assembled to hear jokes about a guy already well established as a good sport; recruited to do the roasting were authors Kurt Andersen, Edmund White, and Sloane Crosley, plus New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman. Musician John Wesley Harding served as host.
If a Friars-Club-style insultfest seems best suited to a personality in need of puncturing and best performed by a panel of remorseless meanies, then the evening was an unlikely exercise. Speaking from previous roast experience, BAM is to Comedy Central what Deborah Treisman is to Whitney Cummings, and what Gary Shteyngart is to Donald Trump. The guest of honor was lavishly self-deprecating, the roasters gentle, the jokes inside.
Treisman articulated the biggest problem with roasting Shteyngart
“How do you roast somebody who roasts himself every day?" she asked the crowd rhetorically.
Well, you settle on some themes: in this case, blurbs and body hair.
After a brief round of guesses from the panelists, Shteyngart revealed the true scope of his prolific career as a blurber of other people’s books: 123 volumes have received Shteyngart’s ceremonial blessing, and all 123 blurbs scrolled across a screen that hung over the stage. The Shteyngart collection praised work by not just Molly Ringwald but also Andrew McCarthy.
“I didn’t know, when my editor asked me to ask Gary for a blurb, how promiscuous he was,” said Kurt Andersen. “It was really like finding out that the person you slept with had slept with many, many, many, many before.”
Edmund White had prepared hypothetical Shteyngart blurbs for Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies. And Mein Kampf: “Proves that left to their own devices, blondes really do have more fun,” White read.
As for body hair, the night’s other comic motif, Crosley briefly obliged Harding’s request for mockery.
“The hair,” she said. “It’s sort of like his nipples are like buttons on a fur coat.”
Shteyngart did his best to supply the roasters with material, producing unprompted a Ziploc bag of his benzodiazepines.
“There’s clonazepam,” he began. “I brought my stash in my man purse. There’s citalopram; that goes with the lorazepam. There’s buspirone, which is good…. Lexapro. And then what I cut it all with is Lipitor.”
“These are all completely genuine,” said Harding, examining the bottles with surprise and delight. “I could read you out Gary’s address.”
Shteyngart continued the conceit, familiar from the self-mocking book trailers for his most recent novel, Super Sad True Love Story, that he is illiterate. Paul Giamatti and James Franco—both book-trailer veterans—appeared in video clips. The crowd also viewed many comely photographs of Felix, Shteyngart’s silky and wide-eyed dachshund.
“This is technically a roast,” Harding reminded the crowd at one point, “and I think it’s all been very gentle and sweet. So is there something that any of you would like to say to Gary that really sums up your feelings of animosity towards him? But in a funny way, that will make the audience laugh?”
“I find it very hard to pick on small, furry creatures,” said Treisman.
“Gary is, to me, like a pet,” said Andersen, who had earlier compared him to a dachshund. “He’s charming; he’s menschy; he’s generous; he comes running when you call him. I know it’s not roasty, but he’s obedient and cute.”
Oddly, the night relied in large part on audience participation. Harding called the numbers of tickets stapled to our programs, and audience members came onstage to answer (with hints from Harding) trivia questions about Shteyngart’s creative writing seminars and convict ex-girlfriends. In return they received prizes: T-shirts, or plastic corn holders, or Columbia tchotchkes signed by Shteyngart, on the price tag.
The bearer of the first ticket chosen, I received a customized blurb from Shteyngart. I stood onstage and Shteyngart, crouched in a tiny chair, asked my name and my job.
“Molly Fisher is the real deal,” he wrote on a torn and folded piece of paper. “
There hasn’t been We have not seen a freelance writer so dapper since Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.”
Promiscuous, maybe, but why bother slut-shaming Gary Shteyngart? Let us rather give thanks for a mensch who not only roasts his own turkey but also graciously carves the bird.