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Author Gary Shteyngart at the Greyhound bus terminal in Toronto on Oct. 1, 2018.Christopher Kat/The Globe and Mail

“Oh, there’s that smell,” says Gary Shteyngart as he walks into the Greyhound bus terminal in Toronto. The 46-year-old author spent months riding “the Hound,” as he calls it, for his new novel, Lake Success, a journey that made him intimately familiar with the sights, sounds and smells of bus stations.

I’m expecting him to deliver a punchline, some droll zinger that should come with its own rim shot. Shteyngart is so good at firing off jokes with the classic set-up-punchline structure that he could easily have become a successful nightclub comic. And in Lake Success, he could have easily directed his comic powers at mocking his main character, disgraced Wall Street hedge-fund manager Barry Cohen, to show how idiotic and deserving of our scorn he is. Instead, Shteyngart did something very different.

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Shteyngart, who splits his time between upstate New York and New York City, decided to write his new novel in response to the ultrarich pricing so many other people out of Manhattan. “It began with this feeling that most of my friends who I had grown up with no longer could afford to live there – artists, journalists, writers – so I started to look around and realized almost everyone around me worked in the financial industry,” he says. “I thought, okay, if I’m going to write any kind of book set in contemporary New York, it would be about finance."

He was particularly interested in understanding the psychology of someone such as Barry Cohen. “I wondered if it would be wise to separate my guy from all of his privilege, all of his money, and to do that by putting him on a very traumatic form of transport for him, which would be the Greyhound bus.

It’s material that, in the hands of such a gifted satirist, promised no shortage of easy laughs, just like the odour of bus terminals. But standing in this bus station, Shteyngart resisted the urge to go for an easy punchline and instead shook my hand, took a seat in a row of green vinyl chairs next to passengers waiting for their bus and explained why he didn’t want to go for easy laughs in his new novel, either.

These are both the best of times and the worst of times for satirists. Every day, there is some fresh absurdity, some galling new act of hubris, some unbelievable breach of norms and morals, giving satirists more targets to aim at than ever. But satire can feel more like piling on rather than pointing a way out of problems, or at the very least better understanding them.

“If you approach things from the point of view of a satirist, how do you top a press conference with Sarah Huckabee Sanders?” Shteyngart asks.

And this brings us to the problem of being a satirist at a political moment when the material practically writes itself.

“If it writes itself then, as the hedge-fund people would say, what’s my value add?” Shteyngart asks.

Barry, Shteyngart’s protagonist, is such a clueless one-percenter that as he flees New York on a bus trip across the United States during the presidential election in 2016, leaving his wife and autistic son behind, he believes that “once you got on the open road the whole country would rush out to say hello and refill your iced tea."

Barry fancies himself a literary man. He’s so fond of Fitzgerald that he named his hedge fund This Side of Capital. As his journey is beginning, running from his failed marriage and federal authorities, he considers one day writing a novel about the trip – “On the Road but in thoughtful middle-age prose.”

Then there are his many schemes to help improve the lives of others. A line of billionaire trading cards, each rich person’s financial stats printed on the back, would inspire America’s children as much if not more than any baseball cards, wouldn’t they? He jettisons that idea for Barry’s Urban Watch Fund, a foundation that would add rigour to the lives of young people by helping “urban youth buy their first mechanical watch and learn to care for it.”

Can anyone this self-absorbed and out of touch really exist? Yes, they can. Shteyngart befriended several of them while writing Lake Success.

“Some of them had read my previous books, so I was invited into that world in a big way,” he says. “I became a kind of hedge-fund whisperer.”

Satirizing these people is easy enough. But can we be made to care about them? That was Shteyngart’s biggest challenge in the novel.

“I would say I wouldn’t have succeeded to my own specifications if the book had left with Barry being a subject of hatred,” he says. “I don’t think redemption is very possible for a lot of people, but I think the hope of redemption is what fuels the novel.”

Throughout the book and even sitting there in that Greyhound bus station with him, you can see Shteyngart struggling to empathize with people who have made millions on Wall Street.

“Some of the people I met were fairly progressive, fairly democratic. But still, just the fact that they do what they do contributes to the greater inequality that led to somebody like [Donald] Trump being elected,” he says.

Does he have empathy for Barry? “I think I have as much empathy as one can have for somebody who makes his living off of very fraudulent means,” Shteyngart says.

Barry doesn’t have any single moment of awakening riding the bus, but the more time he spends out of his bubble the more humbled he becomes. The same can be said for Shteyngart, who travelled across the American south on the Greyhound bus to research the book.

“Like many people who live on the coasts, I don’t really know the country,” he says.

Shteyngart first got on the bus in June, 2016. It was an eye-opening experience. “I thought the election was funny and Trump was going to lose, of course. But when I got off the Hound in September, I changed my mind quite a bit,” he says.

One incident in particular still haunts him. While riding the bus through Louisiana, a couple of white supremacists on board “started talking about crucifying Muslims and Jews,” says Shteyngart, who comes from a Jewish family. The men pointed out the window at an African-American college and said, “'They have their colleges, one day we’ll have ours.'”

Disturbed, scared, unsure of how to respond, Shteyngart and everyone else within earshot all looked away. “That was a great snapshot of, I think, where America would go and may continue to go.”

How could you make jokes in the face of something so appalling? How could it help?

Shteyngart doesn’t forgive Barry, but he does find in him a moving glimmer of decency.

Our certainties are often as much a product of the bubbles we choose to live in as anything else. Shteyngart isn’t suggesting that simply getting out of his bubble is enough to redeem Barry or make anyone empathize with him. But it is a necessary step. Making this point, often with hilariously barbed humour but also with a big enough heart to give someone like Barry a shot at redemption, is Shteyngart’s value add.

“I still think there’s hope for all of us,” I told Shteyngart at the end of our interview.

“I think so, too,” he said. “Get on the Hound, people!”

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