Jennifer Egans 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 others 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 therapists 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 citys 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 lifedivorced, struggling to connect with his nine-year-old son, listening to a washed-up band in the basement of a suburban houseand then revisit him in 1979, at the height of his youth, shy and tender, reveling in San Franciscos 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 gangwho thrived and who falteredand we encounter Lou Kline, Bennies catastrophically careless mentor, along with the lovers and children left behind in the wake of Lous 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 bothand escape the merciless progress of timein the transporting realms of art and music. Sly, startling, exhilarating work from one of our boldest writers.
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. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman's blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that at, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand-it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly ...
Rock music is notoriously difficult to write about, especially in fictional form, where literary platitudes and rhapsodic discursions often fall short of the transformative experience of actually listening to the music. Egan succeeds, though, by offering pithy observations on the sterility of digital remastering ("The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh") and the overwhelming power of listening to music over head phones ("...the experience of music pouring directly against her eardrums—hers alone—is a shock that makes her eyes well up; the privacy of it, the way it transforms her surroundings into a golden montage.."). Music lovers recognize these sorts of truths as gospel, and Egan's obvious affinity with music, especially punk and post-punk, gives the book all the magic of a favorite song.
(Reviewed by Marnie Colton).
Full Review (1285 words).
Although Jennifer Egan now lives in New York, she grew up in California, and her knowledge of the Bay Area/Los Angeles music scene gives the book a gritty authenticity, with references to bands rarely mentioned in the pages of literary fiction: the Dead Kennedys, the Nuns, Black Flag, the Avengers, the Germs, and Negative Trend are all name-checked. "Nineteen-eighty is almost here, thank God," sneers Rhea, scoffing at the Haight-Ashbury's burned out hippies and reveling in her identity as a green-haired punk. Bennie plays bass while Scotty sings lead in their band, the Flaming Dildos, and Rhea and Jocelyn, attired in dog collars and ripped stockings, attend thrillingly aggressive shows at venues like San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens...
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