In August 2020, Shteyngart was working on the final act of the novel when his health and sanity fell apart. As a boy, he’d suffered an infection resulting from a botched circumcision, and the injury flared up, an ordeal he wrote about in an article published earlier this month in The New Yorker. In agony and at times hallucinating because of an anticonvulsant one of his doctors prescribed, his shattered state infiltrated his prose and shaped the final tragic act of the novel, when one of the guests contracts Covid and has nightmarish visions.
“The idea of dying, for the first time in my life, was not abhorrent,” he said.
Shteyngart has largely recovered, and while we walked back toward his home and friends, he seemed cheerful, almost giddy, as he described the outpouring of support following the article’s publication and his sense of victory after winning a Twitter battle with a mohel who attacked it. “They’re not sending their best mohels,” he said.
As dusk fell, more guests arrived — the novelist Paul La Farge and his wife Sarah Stern, the co-artistic director of the Vineyard Theater, the novelists Rebecca Godfrey and Dinaw Mengestu and their spouses, Herb Wilson and Anne-Emmanuelle Mengestu. Mehta, who also showed up, produced a fragrant 14-month-old Parmesan he had smuggled in from Bologna and a potato salad with mustard seeds, cumin and curry leaves. Shteyngart darted around happily, refilling wine glasses.
Dinner was served on a screened-in porch, and platters of food arrived in seemingly endless waves. First came grilled green beans smothered in tonnato prepared by Baluyut, one of several dishes that night that also appears in “Our Country Friends.” A platter of grilled sardines with lemon and rosemary arrived next, followed by sausages, lamb chops, grilled salmon and cheeseburgers, then apple cider doughnuts, homemade apple pie and spiked apple cider.