About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

#82 - A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (New York: Random House, 2010).

Jacket Summary: "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 yough, 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.

"A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book about the interplay of time and music, about survival, about the stirrings and transformations set inexorably in motion by even the most passing conjunction of our fates. In a breathtaking array of styles and tones ranging from tragedy to satire to PowerPoint, Egan captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both -- and escape the merciless progress of time -- in the transporting realms of art and music."

Opening Lines: "It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye 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."

My Take: One of the precious few perks my current job offers is access to a library that, while small in size, seems to have plenty o' hot new releases in stock months before I'd find them in the big, shiny, public libe downtown. Here's hoping this will be more entertaining and less dismal than I need right now.

Well, color me impressed. I'd expected an amusing if sometimes bleak story of angsty, self-destructive urban hipsters. Instead, Goon Squad was ... well, it's hard to describe. To some extent, it's a story about Bennie and Sasha, in that we do learn about their pasts and the future directions their lives take. (No, they don't fall in love and live happily ever after, or even engage in a quick fling. Thank you, Ms. Egan.) And yeah, it's also a story about people whose connections to these two are somewhat peripheral: Lou Kline's oldest children, Charlie and Rolph, as teens years earlier, on an African safari; Bennie's old friends and bandmates, uber-freckled Rhea, her best friend Jocelyn, and reclusive musical wunderkind Scotty; Bennie's ex-wife Stephanie; Stephanie's one-time boss, publicist/ dragon lady La Doll (nee Dolly); Dolly's phenomenally charismatic daughter Lulu; Sasha's own hip college pals, Lizzie and Drew.

Beyond that, it's hard to describe a single plot, as the book is more a collection of vignettes. (And yes, as the dust jacket suggests, a later section is told from the perspective of one protagonist's pre-teen daughter ... in PowerPoint. Believe it or not, it works.) I've been saying this a lot lately, but this isn't the kind of book I usually like; I want a linear plot, darn it, and I don't normally care for short stories (which this both is and isn't). But perhaps I need to rethink my preferences -- this book really was exhilarating, and just plain fun.

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