Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Jennifer Egan's Goon Squad Rocks, Until It Stumbles to a Close

I loved Jennifer Egan's The Keep and wrote about it back in 2010. It's amazing how the same strengths and weaknesses of that novel are repeated in her recent Pulitzer winner A Visit From the Goon Squad.

The strengths are that it involves a storyline that really interests me. The Keep was a dark gothic tale, in the style of Poe about a mysterious castle. The Goon Squad is about a bunch of people mixed up somehow or another in the music and publicity businesses.

The weaknesses are that my favorite characters get really established and then go away for long periods in favor of less-interesting players and storylines. It bugs me a lot more in this book because it had happened before.

In fact, I'm beginning to think Egan's short stories, which have been some of the best pieces in the past decade in The New Yorker, represent a much better path for readers.

Regardless, the story starts strong with the relationship between music executive Bennie Salazar and his young assistant and petty-thief Sasha. The part of their story that takes place on safari in Kenya, and was featured as an excerpt in The New Yorker, is intriguing, as are a lot of the early scenes in New York. But detours to Naples and with the story of a kid obsessed with the pauses in rock 'n' roll songs are missteps that never resolve themselves or reveal why they are there in the first place.

We never really find out what happens to most of the characters. We're left to assume that the pursuit of fame and living in what Egan portrays as a toxic industry simply swallows up people like Scotty (who finally and kind of inexplicably becomes a successful musician when he gets old), Stephanie (Benny's first wife, who likes to play tennis at the country club), Dolly and Lulu (a failed publicist and her daughter, who eventually replaces Sasha as Bennie's assistant), and Alex and his whole family (Alex is apparently haunted by a one-night stand with Sasha that he had initially forgotten for many years).

I just don't know what this all adds up to. Much of it doesn't seem to mean anything or provide morals to the story. The Goon Squad is no doubt a page turner up until about the page-250 mark, but the last 100 pages are a letdown and even make it puzzling why the Pulitzer committee made this choice (other than they simply picked the book for the fiction prize because it uses some interesting techniques, notably in those last 100 pages).

***1/2 out of ***** stars

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