The Soviet Mod Squad
2016, pp. 320, $26
Paul Goldberg’s debut novel, The Yid, may remind many of its readers of the movies of director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino, and especially his 2009 World War II film Inglourious Basterds [sic], in which a French-Jewish cinema proprietor and a Jewish-American military squad work together to assassinate Hitler and others. Like that film, Goldberg’s novel begins with a shocking, comic scene of aestheticized violence, and then it proceeds to tell the story of a cadre that assembles with the aim of assassinating Stalin in early 1953.
Sensible as the comparison might be, The Yid isn’t just Tarantinoism applied to late-Stalinist Russia, though. It’s more like what you might get if you crossed the iconic filmmaker with the novelist Dara Horn, author of The World to Come (2006), among other books. Horn’s novels, which regularly win Jewish book prizes, delight audiences with how much history they manage to pack in. That makes sense if you know that Horn’s initial ambition, when she set out to become a writer, was magazine journalism. Maybe this helps to explain why Goldberg, who has been a working journalist for 35 years, produced something similar upon turning to fiction: an easy-to-read patchwork of scenes and flashbacks that advance a narrative but also make it possible for him to fold in a few dozen historical tidbits and personalities.
The novel’s plot, in other words, is rather slight. Goldberg’s group of inglorious bastards includes a washed-up Yiddish theater actor, a doctor and a Yiddish-speaking African-American engineer with nothing to lose. One night, when soldiers show up at the door of the washed-up actor, Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, instead of meekly letting them carry him away to a dungeon, or Siberia, he kills them all. Knowing his time is limited and he now has nothing to lose, he meets up with a pair of his cronies, Kogan and Lewis. They hide out briefly while formulating a plan, and then set out to assassinate Stalin. That’s it.
But while that plot dribbles out, readers of The Yid encounter a kind of greatest hits of Soviet and especially Soviet-Jewish history: Goldberg offers, for a couple of examples, squibs on the development of Magnitogorsk, a Soviet mining city deliberately modeled on Gary, Indiana, by American contractors, and on the repertoire and personalities of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, GOSET. The novel includes, predictably, an introduction to the Malakhovka orphanage (also a setting in Horn’s The World to Come) where Yiddish greats like poet and novelist Peretz Markish, painter Marc Chagall and philosopher Der Nister taught. Also making an appearance is the oft-repeated story behind American singer Paul Robeson’s impassioned rendition of “Zog nit keynmol,” the ghetto fighter’s song, in honor of his persecuted friend Soviet Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer, in Moscow in 1949.
You might call it a “magazine novel,” the basic building blocks of which seem to be not exactly character, plot and setting, as is usually the case, but rather features, profiles and sidebars. And as is true of a lot of magazines, like Time or Spy or even Cosmopolitan, one of the most distinctive and curious aspects of The Yid is its odd balance between seriousness and comedy. Have you had that experience of reading The New Yorker, where you’re in the middle of a searing article about, say, Stalin’s anti-Semitism, and you’re struck by the incongruity of there being a silly little cartoon of a talking dog in the middle of the page? The evocation of that feeling seems to be not just a major characteristic of The Yid, but its animating impulse.
Goldberg is nothing if not self-aware about the way his work is poised between seriousness and slapstick. At one point, his narrator expounds on the difference between art, the purpose of which “is to ennoble,” and shtick, the purpose of which “is to stuff you with the rich diet of self-parody and self-hatred for no purpose beyond making you open the wallet and burp.” As clear as that would seem to make Goldberg’s sympathies, he leaves the question of which of these terms would better describe The Yid purposefully inconclusive.
There’s certainly a whole lot that smacks of shtick, such as the sometimes vaudevillian dialogues between Levinson, the protagonist—an actor who played a “sad, angry clown”—and his friend Kogan, a distinguished surgeon who has been accused of “cosmopolitism” and dismissed from his position. Old war buddies who tease each other, they often sound more like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show. When their friend, the African-American engineer Lewis, vomits in disgust after throwing a few dead bodies into a well, Kogan says, “I’ve seen this reaction in first-year medical students.”
“And I’ve seen it in actors,” counters Levinson.
“Actors? I’ve seen it in the audience,” says Kogan.
“When you were onstage!”
Tarantino, of course, gets away with just such a mix of seriousness and comedy, as in the hilarious scene from Inglourious Basterds in which Brad Pitt, Eli Roth and Omar Doom pretend to speak Italian. But the reason his movies work is that what they’re ultimately about, of course, is the history of film itself, and they’re made by an artist who is as knowledgeable about the conventions of his medium, and as technically proficient in deploying and subverting them, as just about anyone on the planet.
Goldberg, by contrast, has quite a long way to go in terms of mastering the novel as a form. The Yidstruggles technically both with issues like pacing and structure, and more basic technique, such as when to deploy exposition or action. While the novel’s opening scenes are propulsive and engaging, flashbacks proliferate until they seem gratuitous. His digressions are occasionally entertaining, but just as often wooden or anachronistic to the point of distraction. For example, there’s no reason it seems necessary for Goldberg to mention what was happening in American comedy in 1953 while his characters scheme to murder Stalin, but since he does go out of his way to mention it, one wishes he hadn’t named Rodney Dangerfield as a case in point (Dangerfield didn’t emerge until years later).
Still, like a skilled editor putting together a magazine issue, Goldberg juggles a great many balls—Russian, Yiddish, Shakespearean—rather adeptly. While historians have not been able to confirm reports that preparations were underway in 1953 to deport all or most of Russia’s Jews to Birobidzhan, The Yid vividly imagines that massive pogrom-that-never-was and all of its appalling implications, as well as an act of mythopoetic Jewish heroism that staved off the threat, spicing it all with as many bits of history, lore and comedy as could conceivably be squeezed in. And even if comically violent revenge fantasies like this one make more sense, generically, on film and in video games than in literary fiction, there’s still something enjoyable about reading along as a group of Jews and their allies slay one of their most notorious tormentors.