New Foreword by Ira Glass in Updated Edition
Coach House Books, Sep. 2010, 144 pp, Paperback $18.95 CDN.
Reviewed by: James Onusko
If you prefer to read books defined by broad, overarching narratives and extended, complex character sketches, then there is no need to open the first page of Jonathan Goldstein’s brilliant Lenny Bruce is Dead. If, on the other hand, you prefer discombobulation, occasional insanity, and embracing being completely lost while reading, at certain turns, then open this newest edition with relish. Goldstein’s book is brilliant, evocative and filled with humour. It is a cliff dive that will leave you breathless if you decide to take the plunge – something that I highly recommend.
Jonathan Goldstein is the host of CBC’s WireTap and Lenny Bruce Is Dead was first published in 2001. Goldstein was born in Brooklyn, NY and later moved to Montreal. He holds degrees from McGill and Concordia universities. His Concordia degree is an MA in Creative Writing. He lives in Montreal.
The book is challenging to read on many levels. The writing is highly visual and the style is staccato-like with no real chapter structures. In many ways, it reads like an extended series of snapshots that have been scattered across a huge living room. At times, two or three pictures come together to impart some coherent meaning, at other moments, it seems like the images have been plucked from random parts of the room from apparently unrelated moments. Readers have to trust Goldstein and simply lose themselves as they read the novel; from my reading, one could turn oneself inside out if seeking complete coherence when reading it. I would argue that Goldstein is asking us to question what we read at all times, to recognize and celebrate the ephemeral nature of memory – its imperfections and randomness are defining, dizzying and fabulous. Additionally, Josh’s sexual fantasies border on the macabre in certain scenes – the easily offended may think of groping for the Emergency Exit at times – do not do so.
There are some recurring themes and topics in the book with Goldstein focusing on Josh’s series of warped relationships with women, his deceased mother and drifting father, his uninspiring job at the Burger Zoo and his ongoing conversations with friends about religion and the metaphysical.
In the following excerpt, Goldstein describes a break-up scene following one of Josh’s many failed relationships:
‘I didn’t say you were a fucking idiot,’ Josh said. ‘I said you were like a fucking idiot.’
Kay was cleaning outside his room of all of her things. She was a methodical blonde Zamboni.
After she left he saw a shimmering ring of celestial light in the middle of the double parlour, and when he stepped through it he was in the bathroom of his childhood house. He was crying on the floor, pulling toilet paper off the spool with both hands like he was climbing a rope.
In this second excerpt, Goldstein explores aspects of Josh’s girlfriend’s younger years:
Honey went to this horrible daycare where they never let her change out of her wet bathing suit. Her mother sent her there each day with just a thermos full of coffee. He imagined her tap dancing around the play mat for all the boys, never seeing the fat woman in the black polyester pants who wanted to set her straight. She was dancing the way she did at home on the kitchen table. The fat woman had a handful of slaps for her since the day she first saw her.
Some readers may find the novel too much work. If you read this book and attempt to map some type of linear path, you will be disappointed and frustrated. While that is why I argue it should be lauded, for some, this will be the main area of attack. Some readers simply do not like to be pushed and prodded to work and think as they read – if you are seeking an intellectual and emotional vacation in your next read, don’t pick up this book.
Lenny Bruce Is Dead is an original and stimulating novel. It can be read in a few hours and as long as you approach it with an open and willing mindset, you will not come away disappointed. It is suitable for older teenagers and ‘mature’ adult readers. Think of Goldstein as another gifted Montreal writer Mordecai Richler, on speed, and the novel will make much more sense. We can only hope that Goldstein continues to offer up further efforts with as much panache, creativity and darkened humour as his debut novel roars with on every page.
*A copy of Lenny Bruce Is Dead was sent to me to read and review by Coach House Books. It was not purchased.