by Paul Goldberg
Paul Goldberg's 2016 debut novel The Yid was such a thunderbolt of originality that it created not only a dedicated group eager to read Goldberg's next novel but also an almost impossibly high standard to meet. The Château is that second novel, and it increases its own uphill burden by being not only a sophomore effort (a legendarily doomed enterprise) but by being that deadliest indulgence of contemporary fiction: topical. Most novels would fail under either one of those burdens, let alone both, and yet The Château doesn't fail – it's instead a cheering, almost gaudy success of a novel, deeply in the tradition of Henry Roth and Budd Schulberg and yet exulting in its own strangeness.
It's the story of a long-time science journalist named William Katzenelenbogen who's just been fired from his berth at the Washington Post (allegedly for insubordination, although all he really did was have the bad luck to be filmed deeply napping at a meeting of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors), but the real plot is kicked into motion by another character entirely, Katzenelenbogen's old school friend Zbignew Wronski, the larger-than-life plastic surgeon known as “the Butt God of Miami Beach” (he's “an exterior designer. A posterior designer”) – a character who leaps off his high balcony and plunges to his death, making local headlines.
Katzenelenbogen's former colleague Gwen (herself fired earlier for fabricating stories) shares one of those headlines with him and with sharp instinct tells him he could get back in the game if he wrote a book about the death of the Butt God of Miami Beach. At rock bottom and seeing no alternatives, Katzenelenbogen agrees, but there's a problem: going to Florida means re-connecting with his father Melsor, an eccentric old charlatan who's currently embroiled in a war with condo board of Château Sedan Neuve, where he's seeking to wrest control from the gangsters, thieves, and incognito Nazis he's certain are running the place. The Château's main preoccupation is with the possibility of the younger Katzenelenbogen finding redemption, but this is also very much a story of a father and son.
It's also a story of immigrants, and by implication the infiltration of alt-right monsters into everyday American life, and – again, flirting with the disaster that almost always results from tacking news headlines onto fiction – since it's a story of immigration and the alt-right, it's also a story of Donald Trump, who is taking control of the country just as our hero is losing control of his life. This leads Goldberg to ham-handed lines like “In the eternal fight against fascism, 'can' equals 'must,'” or “You will see: when this Trump madness subsides, retreats, dissolves, because this is, after all, America, Bill and Gwen will be together still, made stronger by their adventure” – lines that look out of place because they seem uncontrolled, whereas everything in The Yid was so smoothly, marvelously controlled, as is everything else in The Château. Given the context of Katzenelenbogen's downward spiral, this might be intentional, but even so, that wouldn't excuse it; even the fleeting feeling that you're barking your shin against the author's political outrage rather than the hero's political outrage threatens to break the spell of the whole operation.
That spell holds, somehow, even when Goldberg is throwing great swinging haymakers directly at its foundations, including, delightfully, taking pokes at the blanket of lazy entitlement that's settled over contemporary fiction-readership in the 21st century:
Readers who have had three or more years of therapy or earned a master's of fine arts degree in creative writing will ask: How did Bill FEEL immediately upon learning about his friend's death? They should be encouraged to wait for this story to develop in accordance with its own rhythms or proceed to generate their own material reflecting the manner in which they were treated and/or trained.
This kind of metafictional mugging for the camera ought to sour the whole book, but again, Goldberg somehow writes right over it, crafting Katzenelenbogen père et fils as classic foils for each other and compelling readers to care as he hammers the son's soul into a new shape that might see him through to better days (the father is a world unto himself; you visit it, but you don't expect it to change). There's a light-hearted rhetorical swerve to The Château that wasn't highlighted in The Yid; this latest novel feels more trusting of its own comic timing and far more charged with momentum. And despite its topical touches (the hero is essentially cut adrift at the 2016 US Presidential election, a feeling many readers will share), the yearnings at the heart of the book – for a disillusioned man to find hope in life again, and for an estranged son to somehow reach his father – don't care about headlines.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.