Paul Goldberg's The Châteauby David Burr Gerrard
The Château (Picador, 2018)
Paul Goldberg’s excellent first novel, The Yid, invented an assassination plot against Joseph Stalin in late February of 1953, to stop a genocide that Stalin may have been planning against the Soviet Jews who had not been murdered by Hitler. Though that novel’s extravagant humor was melancholy and acerbic, it was built on a foundation of hope: we know (or can consult Wikipedia to discover) that Stalin died in March of 1953, and this second Holocaust did not come to pass.
No such hope undergirds The Château, Goldberg’s second novel, which is set in the days leading up to the January 2017 inauguration of a tyrant whose reign of terror will presumably not approach Stalin’s, but whose final tally of evil we do not yet know.
This is in no way to say that The Château is dour—“dour” does not seem like the right word for a book that begins with the post-threesome plummeting from a forty-third-story balcony of a man known as the Butt God of Miami Beach. This opening encapsulates Goldberg’s piquant sense of lewd historical comedy, a sense at once firmly in a long tradition of Jewish writers and entirely Goldberg’s own: as the Pussy Grabber rises, the Butt God falls.
The Butt God in question is a noted plastic surgeon and the one-time college roommate of Bill Katzenelenbogen, a Washington Post science reporter in his fifties who has just been fired, “presumably to be replaced…by three low-paid, tech-savy youth.” Out of work, Bill travels to Florida with the aim of investigating the death of his friend and perhaps finding a book in it. The absence of an employer and a bank account in the low four figures make it necessary for Bill to stay in the titular Château (an exalted term for a dingy retirement home) with his estranged father, Melsor, once a celebrated Soviet dissident poet, now a Medicaid scam artist and fervent supporter of the man he calls “Donal’d Tramp.”
Bill shares some superficial biographical similarities with Goldberg, who is also a Russian-Jewish émigré and a distinguished science writer in his fifties, but it is Melsor who is the novel’s most compelling tragicomic creation. Bill’s father once represented the twentieth-century’s liberal-democratic hopes, and now represents the twenty-first century’s corrupt authoritarian curdling. Still, there is some kind of integrity in him. When Bill overhears some Château residents say the following of his father, he regards it as “astute analysis:” “Some say he is insane, but it’s not that simple. He becomes agitated when the world fails to operate in accordance with the rules he believes must apply.” If one of those rules happens to be that the government should pay him for the fake ambulance rides he arranges, Melsor is merely demonstrating that he has become sufficiently assimilated into American culture to any dollar he makes for his moral due. Melsor’s quest for a seat on the condo board (with the slogan “Make the Château Great Again,” of course) overwhelms Bill’s quest to discover the cause of his friend’s death so subtly, but with such inarguable exuberant humor that not even the Butt God would mind.
The Château is one of the best settings in recent fiction, a Hotel California transplanted to swampy Florida, or maybe the apartment building from Rosemary’s Baby, full of cryptically satanic retirees eagerly awaiting the birth of the new presidency. Melsor’s fellow inhabitants are lively and fun, even when we find ourselves wishing that they had died prior to voting for Donal’d Tramp the previous November. These are people who conflate a dispute with a contractor known as “ICII” with the fight against ISIS. In the pursuit of his condo seat, Melsor spies on an old man who arranges for two young men to entertain his wife sexually while he sits in another room and watches Fox News, and so spies on the closest thing to a healthy, sustainable relationship we see in the novel. Amid often zany comedy, Golderg never loses sight of the deep tragedy of old Florida Jews supporting a man whose election has ushered in the resurgence of Nazism as a major political force and whose policies threaten to sink Florida into the sea.
Goldberg’s descriptions of the Château’s residents are sharp, telling, and funny, even when they are at their most off-handed: “One of the Russians, a short man with a goatee, breaks away from the group and approaches Bill. He is dressed for extreme leisure—light-blue plaid shorts and a faded yellow T-shirt that reads ‘Glasnost,’ a long-abandoned Gorbachev-era slogan.”
In a novel concerned with Russianness and Trump’s inauguration, it is not surprising that the question of Russia’s impact on the 2016 American election occasionally arises. Happily, the novel is less concerned with collusion, a shallow question of logistics, than it is with convergence (“Kleptocrats of the world converge!” Bill says at one point), a deeper question of the dynamics that have caused two countries that led the world in the second-half of the twentieth-century to be ruled by white-supremacist gangsters in 2017.
The novel’s ending is unfortunately unsatisfying, taking a grim twist that feels more like an easy cop-out than a genuine attempt to grapple with where we stand in this era of convergence. But most of the novel is exactly the sort of sharp fiction we need right now, and always.
Let us hope that Goldberg continues to write dark, entertaining, serious, playful novels long after Donal’d Tramp has left the White House.
ContributorDavid Burr Gerrard
David Burr Gerrard is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.