A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan, James Gurbutt

A Visit from the Goon Squad
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A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan, James Gurbutt

Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding interlocking narratives circle the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.

We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist’s couch in New York City, confronting her long-standing compulsion to steal. Later, we learn the genesis of her turmoil when we see her as the child of a violent marriage, then as a runaway living in Naples, then as a college student trying to avert the suicidal impulses of her best friend.

We plunge into the hidden yearnings and disappointments of her uncle, an art historian stuck in a dead marriage, who travels to Naples to extract Sasha from the city’s demimonde and experiences an epiphany of his own while staring at a sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Museo Nazionale.

We meet Bennie Salazar at the melancholy nadir of his adult life - divorced, struggling to connect with his nine-year-old son, listening to a washed-up band in the basement of a suburban house - and then revisit him in 1979, at the height of his youth, shy and tender, reveling in San Francisco’s punk scene as he discovers his ardor for rock and roll and his gift for spotting talent.

We learn what became of his high school gang - who thrived and who faltered - and we encounter Lou Kline, Bennie’s catastrophically careless mentor, along with the lovers and children left behind in the wake of Lou’s far-flung sexual conquests and meteoric rise and fall.

Review

Jennifer Egan’s latest novel consists of a series of tangentially linked chapters concerning that most pressing of baby boomer preoccupations: time. The lynchpin is Bennie Salazar, an untalented musician who mines his love of music through the record producing business. We leap back and forth through time, meeting Bennie’s friends, girlfriends, publicists – the character count is as vast as it is diverse – and each of their stories offers another radial aspect of how nothing we do is an accurate prospectus of our futures, and that we all look around at certain points and wonder how the hell did I end up like this?

Though the book is deliberately jagged in structure, there is a tenderness in the treatment of all the character’s lives that binds the disparate strands together. A beautiful example is the story of a young man, drunk and high and desperately unhappy, who dives into the toxic flotsam of New York’s East River in a final and devastating act of self-loathing and futility. The empathy Egan brings to the youth in Goon Squad allows for an even more brutal dissection of the old. But their accumulated impatience and anger and bitterness is tempered by her understanding of the primal human urge to keep going, no matter how much our bodies deteriorate, our relationships implode, our businesses rise and fall, and our options so rapidly evaporate.

Goon Squad ends with a leap into the future, extrapolating from current trends to a world of relentless individual marketing. But it nostalgic too, checking in on our quest for authenticity. It is a clever novel – one chapter is a PowerPoint presentation – but not an exercise in gimmickry. The PowerPoint is the work of a young girl, and builds a picture of her family so startlingly real and comprehending of family dynamics that I was moved to tears. Not every chapter reaches these heights, but the peaks are upthrusts of originality and greatness. A Visit From the Goon Squad is easily the best novel I read last year. Read it: it’s a must.

Robbie Egan is manager of Readings Carlton

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