After six years of demotion to a backwater beat, 52-year-old Washington Post reporter Bill Katzenelenbogen has been, at last, laid off. He repairs to a local watering hole, where he makes contact with a former flame, who informs him that an old college roommate nicknamed the Butt God — for his achievements in cosmetic surgery — has leaped to his death from a high-rise balcony in South Florida, where Bill’s semi-estranged father also happens to live.
“It’s hard to imagine that any editor would be crazy enough to turn down a book” about the suicide, Bill thinks. It’s rather easy to imagine, actually, and a decorated investigative reporter like Bill should know better.
Paul Goldberg might have had Bill dismiss this plan after the shock of the firing wore off, but it’s one of the few things in “The Château” to which Bill clings without laughter — and a way for Goldberg to get Bill to South Florida. And so, the narrative scaffolding of Goldberg’s second novel — Grievance, Love Interest, Quest — has arisen.
This setup is conveyed with so much frenetically erudite digression and near-free association — there’s a labored set piece on broomsticks and rear ends, and a hopped-up meditation on the question “What if my grandmother had balls?” — that I thought longingly about sedatives.
As if in response to its illegitimacy as a premise, the mystery of the Butt God’s demise nearly vanishes for the rest of the novel, though Goldberg keeps having Bill alert us that he hasn’t forgotten that This Is Why He’s In South Florida. What takes up the book’s pages instead is Bill’s embroilment in another matter of questionable scaffolding: construction-related fraud in the condo board of the high-rise where Bill’s father, Melsor, lives. Melsor was a moral hero once — he opposed the Soviet regime and became a refusenik — but America has helped him connect to his inner criminal. He not only defrauded Medicare — he considers himself a “healthcare entrepreneur” — but killed his cancer-ridden wife by insisting on a quack treatment. Needless to say, he’s a narcissist and a Trump supporter.
The story continues in such a frenzied tone — the former flame is hauled out for periodic re-ignition; Bill’s ex-wife keeps demanding money; Bill stumbles into sex with a prostitute — that it takes a while to realize that Bill is a spectral protagonist, full of detail but not character. He endures his father’s insults mostly as he did as a young man: Silently. Well, no: He has his readers to complain to.
But I can’t say my conscription into this support group was fulfilling, Bill’s nonstop yuks notwithstanding. Bill does light into South Florida, but making fun of South Florida feels about as stirring as dinner with a bunch of party-line Northeastern liberals. Not that Bill shares their faith in progress. He is, by now, what you might call a genial nihilist. He’s not out to destroy or avenge, but he’s not going to deal with anything, either. But then he does, in a sudden flurry of resolutions and tie-ups. “The Château” feels like the movie Michael Bay would make out of Beckett.
At least we get to see Bill — William — unravel into who he was before a W and M got attached to the ends of his name: Ilya. South Florida, with its surfeit of Russian Jews, reconnects Ilya to his Russian side — hard. The novel offers such a mind-boggling amount of text in transliteration from Russian — to Goldberg’s credit, much of it flawless and all of it very funny — that it can double as a Russian textbook. Less so as a manual for believable characterization: People who barely speak English use words like “profligacy,” “satraps” and “malcontents.”
We have sat through this particular math lesson before: Russian Jews + American Jews = high jinks. This leaves Goldberg’s story to hang on the intrigues of a South Florida condo board, which, even as a grandstanding metaphor for the moral rot of the Trump era — a connection Bill relentlessly flags for us with subtle nudges such as “Has the world become a big crooked condo board?” — strains to justify itself across even half of the book’s nearly 400 pages.
Goldberg deployed a similarly kinetic storytelling style in his first novel, “The Yid,” but there the enterprise was ennobled by the subject matter: a revenge fantasy in which a band of Jews and fellow travelers sets out to murder Stalin. The concerns of the Chateau — and “The Château” — feel picayune by comparison. Bill’s antic numbness is the book’s, too.
Boris Fishman is the author of the novels “A Replacement Life” and “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo,” and will publish “Savage Feast,” a family history told through recipes, next spring.
By Paul Goldberg
Picador. 384 pp. $26