Fans riding high from Jennifer Egan’s critically acclaimed The Keep have much to look forward to in her new novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which turns away from the neo-gothic and mind-bending while retaining the unexpected humor and postmodern breadth of her earlier work.
At the book’s start, we drop in on the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging record executive, and Sasha, his aimless, kleptomaniac assistant. Sasha goes on a mediocre online date, while Bennie brings his nine-year-old son to see a band he has signed but knows he can’t break out. Then the narrative takes an unexpected turn, making great leaps in time and location to show us not only how these characters got to be the way they are (and flashing forward to what they will ultimately become), but the ways in which the ancillary players in their lives have touched and connected them. We meet Scotty, Bennie’s former bandmate from the Bay Area punk scene; Lou, the group’s self-destructive mentor who takes his children and young girlfriend on a trip to Africa; Rob, Sasha’s suicidal college friend who struggles with his own identity in the Internet’s early days; and Alex, Sasha’s date from the opening chapter, who goes on to see a world in which technology and music intertwine in surprising, though not implausible ways.
Chapters jump from first to third person, from heavily footnoted magazine articles to PowerPoint presentations, yet Egan’s scope remains simultaneously manic and highly controlled. Indeed, one gets the sense that she knows so much about her characters’ lives that she had the luxury of curating only the choicest moments for our reading pleasure, the result of which is a series of pastiches that deftly and lyrically illustrates the ways people and culture change, yet stay remarkably the same.Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.
This month’s best paperback releases for reading groups include this year's National Book Award winner and two much-touted novels.
Jennifer Egan’s raucous new novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, offers a perceptive look at today’s music industry by focusing on the career of a man who’s seen it all. Bennie Salazar was in a punk band years ago in San Francisco. Now a record producer in New York, he serves as the center of Egan’s narrative, which is structured as a group of loosely connected vignettes about Bennie’s career and the California music scene that nurtured him. The book flashes back to Bennie’s wild past, conjuring a range of voices and characters from that era—groupies, street kids, would-be musicians—then returns to the present, highlighting the changes that have taken place (for the worst, mostly) in the music business. Egan develops a wonderful cast of characters along the way. There’s Sasha, a kleptomaniac who works for Bennie, and Scotty, a fellow musician who’s now a recluse. At once humorous and earnest, antic and tender, this is an inventive look at an aging artist and the passions that fueled his career.
AT THE RACES
Winner of the National Book Award, Jaimy Gordon’s latest novel, Lord of Misrule, is a rich depiction of horse-racing culture set in West Virginia in the 1970s. Tommy Hansel, a trainer at Indian Mound Downs, hopes to swindle the competition through a con involving four different horses. When Tommy is joined at the track by Maggie, his attention-grabbing girlfriend, she’s quickly noticed by everyone, including gangster Joe Dale Bigg. Drawn to the dark side of racing, Maggie soon finds herself in need of protection, which arrives in the form of a tough guy named Two-Tie. At Indian Mound, a place where loyalty and honesty are in short supply, fortunes can change overnight, and Tommy’s luck doesn’t last long. In Gordon’s hands, the track is brought to vibrant life, populated with groomers and gamblers, coaches and owners. Her many narrative gifts include an ear for jargon, an instinct for pacing and a style that’s lyrical without being heavy-handed. This is a masterfully crafted novel that’s satisfying on every level.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
The top choice, hands down, of BookPage readers for best new title of 2009 will finally be available in paperback on April 5. With more than two million copies sold, The Help has been so successful in hardcover that publication of a paperback edition was delayed several times. Adding to the excitement surrounding this insightful Southern novel is a much-anticipated movie based on the book, scheduled for August release and starring up-and-comer Emma Stone. Set in Mississippi in the 1960s, the story of how smart, resourceful socialite Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan joins forces with two black maids, Minny and Aibileen, to write a book about the lives of Southern servants is a poignant and ambitious work of fiction. Through the alliance of this unlikely trio, Stockett examines the big shifts taking place in 1960s society. The novel’s crisp prose, fresh characterizations and inventive storyline all seem the work of an old hand, but this unforgettable novel is Stockett’s debut.
Copyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.
Time changes both everything and nothing in this novel about former punk rocker-turned-music executive Bennie Salazar and Sasha, his indispensable secretary with an unhappy past. A host of characters from San Francisco's 1970s music scene collide in ways that are hard to summarize, with peripheral characters in one chapter more fully developed in others. These well-defined characters and the engaging narrative are hallmarks of Egan's earlier fiction, which include Look at Me, a National Book Award finalist, and the best-selling The Keep. Here, we learn that power is transient, authenticity is not all it's cracked up to be, and friendships are often fragile, but the connections among people matter terribly. Often, we survive the self-destructive tendencies of youth only to realize that we've just exchanged one set of problems for another. VERDICT In the end, this novel does offer hope, but it is the grubby kind that keeps you going once you've been kicked to the curb. Readers will enjoy seeing the disparate elements of this novel come full circle. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/10.]--Gwen Vredevoogd, Marymount Univ., Arlington, VA[Page 73]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.
Readers will be pleased to discover that the star-crossed marriage of lucid prose and expertly deployed postmodern switcheroos that helped shoot Egan to the top of the genre-bending new school is alive in well in this graceful yet wild novel. We begin in contemporaryish New York with kleptomaniac Sasha and her boss, rising music producer Bennie Salazar, before flashing back, with Bennie, to the glory days of Bay Area punk rock, and eventually forward, with Sasha, to a settled life. By then, Egan has accrued tertiary characters, like Scotty Hausmann, Bennie's one-time bandmate who all but dropped out of society, and Alex, who goes on a date with Sasha and later witnesses the future of the music industry. Egan's overarching concerns are about how rebellion ages, influence corrupts, habits turn to addictions, and lifelong friendships fluctuate and turn. Or as one character asks, "How did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?" Egan answers the question elegantly, though not straight on, as this powerful novel chronicles how and why we change, even as the song stays the same. (June)[Page 46]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.