Thank god for brains and talent. Gary Shteyngart's coming-of-age journey is an arduous one. From the moment this Russian Jew arrives in Queens from Leningrad at the age of 7, he's beset by immigrant bafflement, bullying, panic attacks and free-floating rage. As he gains years, he gains vices from drug and alcohol abuse to a clever meanness not everyone appreciates. And despite the ambivalence of his sparring, confounded parents and a cruel mother country, he lands, at least for now, on solid ground. That he's publishing regularly, valued by people who matter to his career, loved and lovable, has something to do with his impressive gifts.

"Little Failure," by Gary Shteyngart. Random House, New York, 2014. 368 pages. $27

Thank god for brains and talent. Gary Shteyngart's coming-of-age journey is an arduous one. From the moment this Russian Jew arrives in Queens from Leningrad at the age of 7, he's beset by immigrant bafflement, bullying, panic attacks and free-floating rage. As he gains years, he gains vices from drug and alcohol abuse to a clever meanness not everyone appreciates. And despite the ambivalence of his sparring, confounded parents and a cruel mother country, he lands, at least for now, on solid ground. That he's publishing regularly, valued by people who matter to his career, loved and lovable, has something to do with his impressive gifts.

Shteyngart, already acclaimed as an author, adds another accomplishment to his writerly repertoire with his new memoir "Little Failure." Humor and rage, he writes, are his Russian-Jewish family's chief inheritance. In "Little Failure," Shteyngart makes good use of his legacy. The humor/rage solution diverts many wrenching situations that would otherwise require a more sober narrative treatment. His sarcasm, employed with ferocity at times, also begs questions regarding the success of those 14 years of psychoanalysis he mentions.

Nonetheless, I grudgingly tolerate the sarcasm for the good that is the greater picture. Shteyngart has a fairly ugly story to tell. Kudos for honesty, which is essential if you are to achieve the thrust and range needed to span the dramatic arc to present-day maturity and insight. Sometimes truths are so unpleasant that they are best couched in something more entertaining, like sarcasm. On the other hand, sometimes writers just cannot help themselves. His family, he writes, engages in "supposedly funny banter with a twist of the knife." It's something he says he can't pull off in casual conversation. But, he writes, "That's what I have my novels for." Add memoir to that list.

In 1979, Shteyngart and his family leave Leningrad for Queens. They're part of a mass exodus enabled by a deal President Jimmy Carter makes with the Russians. Grains and technology are exchanged for Russian Jews.

Shteyngart is thin, pale and often has dark circles under his eyes. Nighttime is a torment. And he's so asthmatic that, while in Russia, his desperate parents prop open his mouth with a spoon. A more brutal treatment involves "cupping" - heated glass cups are applied to his torso to form circles of suction. This ravaged, skinny, Russian-speaking boy, held back a year in America because he's just learning English, is a target for bullies in the Hebrew school he attends. Early on he finds the one person of lesser stature than he, and he punches him in the stomach.

One major leg of this journey is the evolution of Shteyngart's relationship with his battling parents. Things seem to tank when they move to America. The mother freezes him out when she's angry. There are times when she refers to her son as "little failure." His father wallops him across the neck, calls him "little son" into adulthood and, alternately, implores him not to write like the other self-hating Jews. Then there are those frequent times when the parents war with each other. These are not bad people, even if the mother does charge her son $1.40 each for the chicken cutlets she prepares and packages for him. They struggle to make headway in America. They save, they send money back to the families in Russia, and they sacrifice almost all creature comforts. Slowly they improve their living situation to the point where they can buy housing in Queens and visit Disneyworld.

Shteyngart, the "hated freak," moves the focus away from his Russianness, he says, to storytelling when he writes a book that a teacher invites him to read to his class in installments. The kids listen intently. His second book, a play on the word Torah called "Gnorah," continues his identity shift. This book, written on a scroll, is a hatchet job on his Hebrew school's religious experience.

He moves on to Stuyvesant High School for the maths and sciences, where his acting out gets serious. At Oberlin, a college he chooses in part to be with a woman he's pursuing (she spurns him romantically as soon as they get on campus), he graduates magna cum laude despite the drinking and drugging. All the while he's looking for love, which proves elusive.

The book brings us up to the publication of his first novel, "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" and a 2011 trip the author takes with his parents. In the final chapter we are freed of the sarcasm and allowed to experience the family reuniting on old, familiar and hallowed soil. It's unclear whether it's the trip that eases some of the long-time tensions or just the passage of time. What is clear is that the family looks together at where they've been and they find some peace and take some pride in their accomplishments.

The details Shteyngart reveals about his youth are often hard to read. Yes, he's a good writer who can produce a witty, sometimes affecting memoir. And, yes, we are going to examine the book's content and the man - the main actor - and some of us are going to question his access to a moral compass. It seems as if he was a Republican to fit in, a paralegal to please his family, a boyfriend "at the disposal" of an already attached woman to get sex. He didn't contort himself to go against his grain so much as he flowed with the prevailing tides to meet some very deep, very necessary needs. These sad circumstances, augmented by "a minor addiction," require real work to set right. It appears Shteyngart has done so despite a contentious family he once saw as "a tribe of wounded narcissists, begging to be heard."

There were some topics broached but not explored to my satisfaction. What happened with the psychoanalysis? Where did his wife come from? How and when did he get sober? And, for me, I'd love to know what kind of writer he would be if someone were to suggest, "Lose the sarcasm, why don't you."

Rae Padilla Francoeur's memoir, "Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair," is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at rae.francoeur@verizon.net. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.