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Sassy Mama Book Club: A Visit from the Goon Squad

Family LifePost Category - Family LifeFamily Life

goon_squadJennifer Egan won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Now she’s added the Pulitzer Prize.

You would be entirely forgiven if those awards for “A Visit to the Goon Squad” make you decide not to read it.

After all, look at the novels that have won in the last few years.

National Book Critics Circle
2009 Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
2008 Roberto Bolaño, 2666
2007 Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Pulitzer Prize
2009 Paul Harding, Tinkers
2008 Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge
2007 Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

How many of these have you read?

Right. And I haven’t either. Because there is something about “good” fiction that fairly announces: “You can read me — but you can’t enjoy me.”

I am here to say that I raced through the 13 stories that, taken together, make a novel out of “Goon Squad.” And that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. And that, although I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, it’s just possible that “Goon Squad”— which is similar in its themes — is the finer book.

First, three things I really like about Jennifer Egan:
1) She writes by hand.
2) She naps “a lot” while writing.
3) She has a Twitter account “I never use.”

What I like most, though, is Jennifer Egan’s writing. (Not all of it. I can’t seem to care about any of her earlier books.) She writes about the music business — yes, sex and drugs and rock and roll — without cliché or patronization. She invents a large cast of characters, and you care about even the nastiest, and you never get confused who’s who. And she has the knack for taking a big subject — time, and how it changes us, and what’s remembered, and what’s lost — and dissolving it into stories that don’t proclaim themselves Serious and Important.

For example, the way the book begins:

It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eyes shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you get back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand — it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously and take the fucking thing.

Where do ideas like that — a kleptomaniac, a hotel bathroom — come from? Well, how about Jennifer Egan’s life experience:

Christmas Eve, my husband, kids and I were having cheeseburgers with my mom and stepfather at the bar of the Regency hotel (a kind of tradition with us). Washing my hands in the bathroom, I noticed a fat green wallet inside a wide-open bag beside the sink. I had a thought along the lines of: She’s lucky it’s me, seeing this wallet, and not a different kind of person. Which led to the question: What kind of person? Who is the woman who would look down while washing her hands, see a wallet, and take it? That question stayed with me. Although I wasn’t intending to work on stories — in fact, I was trying to begin a novel set in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II — I sat down with that wallet in my head and a pen in my hand, to see what might happen.

With what I take as great courage, Egan then sat down and just….wrote. That is, working without the net of a plot, she let one story lead to another. Characters popped up, got connected. Sasha, for just one. We meet her as a young woman in New York, where she’s spent more than a decade as right hand to a record producer named Bennie Salazar. Jump to Bennie’s story, starting a decade ago in California. And a kid punk band. And drugs. Yes, and sex. And a marriage ending. A friend dying. A musician failing, then reappearing decades later, in Bennie’s office, carrying a fish he caught in the East River.

Eventually, Egan had a saga that spanned 40 years. “Time’s a goon,” a character says. Yes it is, along with what rides shotgun for Time, which is Death.

The novel isn’t chronological. There’s a chapter written in PowerPoint. (Fancy, but here, just this once, it works.) And every once in a while, Egan will step back and summarize decades in a single paragraph:
This particular memory is one she’ll return to again and again, for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father’s house at twenty-eight: her brother as a boy, hair slicked flat, eyes sparkling, shyly learning to dance. But the woman who remembers won’t be Charlie; after Rolph dies, she’ll revert to her real name — Charlene — unlatching herself forever from the girl who danced with her brother in Africa. Charlene will cut her hair short and go to law school. When she gives birth to a son she’ll want to name him Rolph, but her parents will still be too shattered. So she’ll call him that privately, just in her mind, and years later, she’ll stand with her mother among a crowd of cheering parents beside a field, watching him play, a dreamy look on his face as he glances at the sky.
That, friends, is mastery. It’s all over this book, and I really don’t want to say more than that, because, frankly, I’m still getting over the fact that a novel I enjoyed cleaned up in awards season.
To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.
To read more from Head Butler, visit his fabulous website here

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