The house on the hill — that’s how the locals refer to Gary Shteyngart’s retreat, a 1930s Craftsman bungalow on seven acres in Dutchess County.
“Though, as you can see, the hill is pretty minuscule,” said the Leningrad-born Mr. Shteyngart, 46, whose acclaimed books, equal parts satirical and dystopian, include “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” “Super Sad True Love Story” and “Little Failure.” His new novel “Lake Success,” a tragicomedy about a self-absorbed hedge fund manager in search of a more manageable life, will be published in early September.
Mr. Shteyngart, who was seven when he and his parents immigrated to Little Neck, Queens, had rented many an upstate property before buying one in 2012. The purchase was, in part, a way to replicate the singularly precious childhood experiences of summers in a bungalow colony in Ellenville, N.Y., pool and peers included.
“I loved that place,” he said. “There were maybe 20 little houses, each crammed with Russian Jews. It was really spectacular.”
But why stop at summer? This is more year-round dacha.
The property is also an escape from what Mr. Shteyngart views as an increasingly unfamiliar and unpalatable Manhattan; he lives in a Gramercy Park co-op (“Like a good immigrant, I’ve always owned my apartment”) with his wife, Esther Won, a lawyer, and the couple’s four year-old son, Johnny.
“The New York I knew is gone. It’s all Duane Reade. The Union Square Cafe had to leave Union Square. The coffee shop I love is about to close. Up here, it’s more timeless. It hasn’t been overrun yet,” he said.
“I also realized that my friends were living in this area. I love hanging out with them and going with them to restaurants and to readings,” continued Mr. Shteyngart, who divides his time equally between homes. “It’s got everything that I love in New York, but here everyone lives in a nice house with many acres and enjoys themselves very much. And it’s much quieter. I need that in order to work.”
He added: “‘Lake Success’ was written up here in about six months. It the city, it would take a year and a half, two years to get a draft out.”
Bringing the Old Country to the country: “My family started out pretty poor, and then we became middle class. I’ve always associated having a summer place with having some sort of financial stability, and also Russians are in love with the idea of a dacha. You can’t have summer without a dacha.”
By Mr. Shteyngart’s estimation, he and his wife were shown a few zillion prospects, including one — he swears this is true — with a septic field sited over an Indian burial ground. What particularly appealed to him about the Arts and Crafts house was the back story: It was built during the Depression, so Mr. Shteyngart was told, as a sort of learn-your-two-by-fours project by workers hoping to make construction their trade.
“I felt a little bonding with them,” he said. “They were probably first generation, and they were coming up in the world.”
What they wrought — three bedrooms, two baths, oak floors and windows framed in chestnut — was built to last (just like the current owner’s lifework).
“It’s a sturdy house, and it’s held together nicely,” said Mr. Shteyngart, who, admittedly, was uncertain about the purpose of the mudroom and bemused by the six-burner stove, a legacy from a previous resident who had owned a nearby Mexican eatery. “I’m at most a one-burner guy.”
Like that restaurateur, Mr. Shteyngart has put his stamp on the house. The amenities include, but are not limited to, an outdoor shower (currently closed for repairs), a guesthouse (formerly the garage) and a hot tub.
“As a kid, I didn’t speak English well at first,” Mr. Shteyngart recalled. “And when we went up to Ellenville, there were all these Russian kids and we hung out together. The pool there is where I learned to swim. The first thing I wanted to do when my son was born was get him to swim. And all the houses had covered porches where we would sit on rainy days.”
So there is a pool here, too, just outside the guest quarters, along with a grill. And off that puzzling mudroom is a large screened-in porch — Mr. Shteyngart’s de facto office. The view is great. There is a wood-burning stove for when the temperature drops. The sofa — Mr. Shteyngart writes supine, laptop resting on his stomach — is just exactly as comfortable as it needs to be.
“The pool, the grill, the hot tub, the porch. It reminds me of good old dacha days,” he said. “But now we’re speaking English.”
Because this is the dacha of a writer, it has the two absolutely essential tools of the trade, at least as far as Mr. Shteyngart is concerned: a generous supply of liquor (when the workday wraps around 4 p.m., out to the porch goes the cognac or the single malt) and a highly reliable espresso maker, in this case a Saeco.
Mr. Shteyngart knows full well that there are people who can — and do — spend years scouring antiques shops and flea markets for the perfect end table. He and his wife are not part of that group. Room & Board answered pretty much all their needs, though they did have the bookcases custom made, then filled them with many foreign editions of the Shteyngart oeuvre.
“Because it’s the country, we wanted things to look neat and nice, and not to look ridiculously rustic but to look rural,” Mr. Shteyngart said. He is particularly partial to a yellow easy chair that holds a cushion made by a fan. It bears his likeness and the word “failurchka” (“little failure”), the nickname given to the protagonist by his disappointed mother in “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” and to Mr. Shteyngart by his own mother in the memoir “Little Failure.”
He is, Mr. Shteyngart said, the latest in a string of contented residents, offering as evidence a cache of photos of former occupants, among them a man who was the chauffeur for a wealthy local family. He also recalled a woman who knocked on the front door one day and asked for a peek inside. “She said, ‘These are my happiest memories,’” said Mr. Shteyngart, who welcomed her right in to compare notes. “How could I not?”
“I may be a dystopian,” he added, “but this is the happiest house I’ve ever lived in.”
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