This is the very first book that I am crossing off my Beat the Backlist 2018 Reading Challenge List! Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, this is definitely a pre-2018 publication. And one that has been on my list for quite some time. It has such an attention-grabbing title, for starters, and flipping through it, there’s a whole chapter done in PowerPoint. Plus, a story based around an “aging” punk rocker and his assistant just seems like it could hold a lot of promise. I know there are very mixed reviews for this book, as (I have found) with most highly praised/awarded novels, but, in my opinion, this one definitely delivers.
“Sure everything is ending […], but not yet.”
So, like the description on the back cover states, this is a novel about Bennie (a music executive, post-punk rocker stage) and Sasha, his young, female assistant with a colorful past. Well, it’s mostly about them, objectively, though it doesn’t always really feel that way. The first two chapters are told from their perspectives (one each), but this book is primarily about them from the perspective of others. Each chapter is told by a different narrator, no repetitions, from different times in Bennie and Sasha’s lives. No single POV is ever repeated. We hear about these two from Bennie’s wife (future ex-wife), random date of Sasha’s, bandmates from Bennie’s youth, Sasha’s daughter (in the oft mentioned PowerPoint chapter), a girlfriend of Bennie’s “sponsor” into the world of record executive, a college friend (wanna-be boyfriend) of Sasha’s, and more. So while we piece together Bennie and Sasha’s lives from these narratives, we also get a lot about the circumstances and personalities of our narrators as they tell us about Bennie and Sasha. This makes the book feel like it is at least as much about them, and their inevitable interactions with each other, outside of the confining space of Bennie and Sasha’s stories. And none of these snippets of life are told in a normal chronological (or any other type of) order. This makes you really have to pay attention as each chapter opens and you are trying to figure out the connection of the narrator to the “story” as a whole, as well as when this narrator is speaking from (and it could be anywhere from the childhood of Bennie or Sasha to the far, speculative, future). It requires a serious investment and attention from the reader, but it totally works (and I cannot necessarily explain how/why, because I have read books where similar techniques definitely do not work).
The whole novel reads, in my opinion, more like a collection of short stories than a full-length story with a narrative arc. Even though by the end, you come away with the feeling that everything does, in fact tie together. And, to the credit of the author, every perspective truly does tie together; sometimes in expansive or obscure ways, but always cleanly and smoothly and believably. And with each chapter, as you figure out the connection(s), you get a huge wave of satisfaction as a reader that became quite addicting. However, with all the little details that are important and create a deeper and more meaningful story, this is definitely not a novel that you can read a little of and walk away from for weeks and expect to come back and get the same reading experience and satisfaction (not that you will ever want to put it down for that long…). In any case, back to my original point, it reads like a short story collection, with each chapter giving its own little “conclusion” as you work your way towards the final denouement. Egan’s overall story-crafting is really extraordinary.
As far as the thematic aspects of the novel, this is really an exploration of the developments and growth people experience throughout their lives and as they age. The “goon” in the title is a reference to time itself, and its constant forward movement, for everyone, no exceptions. How much we change is really remarkable, when you actually think about it. And by taking jumps between the biggest or most defining “moments” of these character’s lives (even when they do not recognize it for what it is at the time), Egan is really able to hone in on these changes. This is a very raw, sometimes harsh, commentary on these transformations, for good and bad, with insightful and occasionally cutting observations and judgements on life. However, the air of poeticism and, at times, satire, softens the blows a little without taking away from the message(s) – a clear mark of Egan’s mastery of the English language.
It’s really difficult to put into words how in control of the story (stories) Egan is. There were so many spots where little lines made me gasp in recognition, remembrance or connection, either to other parts of this book or to my own life. The subtlety, poignancy and frequency of these moments are really what speaks to the brilliance of the author. You’ll either have to take my word for it…or read it yourself to find out.