I tend to lag a bit behind when it comes to bestseller lists and literary awards so I was intrigued when I spotted Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, before the year was close to over.
There’s no doubt a plausible explanation, but I forget all about the issue when I delved into Egan’s work, which hovers somewhere between a collection of short stories and a novel. The “goon” of the title is none other than time itself, and the plot revolves around two generations of people involved in the music business, with no one dominant storyline.
In one of the stories/chapters, two young groupies hook up with a reptilian producer named Lou, who’s at least 20 years their senior. He immediately gets one of them into bed. But what’s beside his bed is of more interest:Look, she goes. She holding a framed picture of Lou in a swimming pool surrounded by kids, the littlest ones almost babies. I count six. Jocelyn goes, They’re his children.
"For better or worse, nothing remains indie for long, every party comes to an end"
Egan’s ear for the period can be heard in the use of “go” for “say” – how very late 1980s America. And her handling of character immediately yields the question: If Lou is such a slimebag, why does he keep pictures of his kids at his bedside?
The next section relates the trip to Africa on which that photo was taken. Lou has taken a band from Arizona on safari, and a member named Chronos has very nearly gotten his head bit off by a lion, before being rescued by the group’s African guide:Albert has gained the status of a hero, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him. He gulps a bourbon and mutters his responses to the giddy queries from the Phoenix Faction: No one has yet confronted him with the damning basics: How did you get so close to the lions? Why didn’t you stop Chronos from getting out of the jeep?
Instead of providing answers, Albert sleeps with Lou’s (much younger) second wife.
Goon Squad jumps back and forth through time, and the effect is both comic and devastating in a low-key way, such as when two of Lou’s former acolytes pay one last visit to his home:The house is the same, except quiet. The quiet makes no sense. Nerve gas? Overdoses? Mass arrests? I wonder as we follow a maid through a curve of carpeted rooms, the pool blinking at us past every window. What else could have stopped the unstoppable parties?
But it’s nothing like that. Twenty years have passed.
Time heals a few wounds in Egan’s depiction of what becomes of a social scene as its members get older. But it wounds a lot more heels.
I suppose this current novel particularly got to me because I can remember going to hear 1980s bands like Hüsker Dü or the Minutemen before anyone could even imagine Nirvana. For better or worse, nothing remains indie for long, every party comes to an end, and everyone must move on. But that recognition doesn’t change the basic sadness of the facts of life.
For the rest, as another great author once wrote, is silence.