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Only The Mad Will Make It In The World Of 'The Chateau'

Sometimes you want a book that deals with the big things — love and death and meaning and worth. Sometimes you want stakes that are as high as saving the universe. Sometimes you want thoughtful digressions by learned thinkers on the state of man or the look of aspens in the snow.

And sometimes you want a book that begins with the death of the Butt God of Miami Beach and concerns, primarily, a South Florida condo board election. The Chateau, the new novel from Paul Goldberg, is that book — a fast-forward screed on our current historical moment, scattered and digressive and insane in the best possible way.

"Has any place, any culture, so fully embraced the pursuit of pleasure with such small-d democratic small-c catechism?" Goldberg asks of Florida as his main character, recently unemployed Washington Post journalist William Katzenelenbogen, disembarks there to investigate the death of the Butt God. "If you want a machinegun, get a machinegun. If you want to snort coke, snort coke. If you want to defraud your neighbor, defraud your neighbor. If you want to f*** a giraffe, arrangements can be made to enable you to f*** a giraffe."

Having spent some time in Florida myself, I can comfortably say that this is all true. It is more or less documentary. But for Bill Katzenelenbogen, Florida is also home to his father (they haven't spoken in a decade), and his father's new wife (they've never met), and the Butt God — cosmetic surgeon Zbignew Wronski, an old friend of Bill's, recently dead of a 43-story swan dive from his balcony to the artfully tiled lobby bar of the Grand Dux Hotel far below.

A book is what Bill is after in Florida, ostensibly. A book about the death of his friend Big Zbig, because while Bill was once an award-winning investigative journalist for the Post, he begins the story as a very-recently-ex-investigative-journalist, having been fired for the sin of growing old and accomplished in an industry that would prefer all its reporting be done by 22-year-old interns with healthy Twitter feeds.

So he goes looking for the truth of Zbig's fatal plummet and finds instead his own father, Melsor — Russian immigrant, poet, political dissident, small-time crook, Trump fan who reads Art of the Deal in both the English and the Russian translation. Melsor believes that Trump ("Tramp" in his bungled and beautifully captured mish-mash of Russian and English) is a modern Camus — a man made for his moment, who takes what he wants and apologizes to no one. Who sees the world as it is, not as we want to believe it is.

Melsor made his money in a Medicare insurance scam years ago and moved into a penthouse apartment on Florida's Gold Coast, in a building that is slowly crumbling into the sea. His enemies are everywhere, real and imagined. His best friend is a blind WWII vet with an assault rifle that he regularly fires into the ocean. Bill arrives meaning only to say hello to the old man, maybe sleep on the couch while he's researching his book on the Butt God. But inch by inch he gets sucked into his father's war against the crooked condo board, which has split the building into tribes — one mostly Russian immigrants, the other mostly elderly Americans, both looking for the angle, the kick-back, the way they can come out of this on top in Tramp's America.

'The Chateau' reads like a part-time re-tread of Gogol's 'The Government Inspector,' full of mistaken identity, betrayal and crime.

The Chateau reads like a part-time re-tread of Gogol's The Government Inspector, full of mistaken identity, betrayal and crime. Like a satire of a satire, spiked with contemporaneous observations on dissident politics and the toxic souring of the American Dream. It is, at times, antic — twitchy with its own internal energy. It whipsaws between fury and depression, dressing the hard realities of aging and debt and crime in a cotton candy tutu and star-spangled pasties. At moments, it is like Stanislaw Lem writing real estate copy for The Atlantic. At others, like Carl Hiaasen getting under the Florida blacktop and smelling the swamp beneath. And all through, it is bonkers — a careening voyage that feels like falling because never does it seem like Goldberg is completely in control of his own plot, pen or characters.

The Chateau suffers for this occasionally (mostly in odd, over-long passages about design or the repeated misplacement of plot threads), but it is also the book's strength. No book could be written about this moment in America that wasn't fractured; if one was, it would be a pack of lies. Or worse, propaganda. And Goldberg seems to know this. He finds truth in randomness and the unlikely outcome, character in who these people aren't as much as who they are. And by the end, he sorts his winners not by morals or growth, but by tenacity. This is a world where only the mad will make it. Only those who see what they want and take it.

Or those who, like the Butt God, choose instead to fly.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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