Jonathan Goldstein, Lenny Bruce Is Dead: A Novel, Counterpoint, 2006. [2001.]
Read it at Google Books
"This startlingly original debut from "This American Life" contributor Goldstein is a snapshot of the mind of Josh, a rather confused young man who must cope with his father's listlessness and his own overwhelming lust."
At McDonald's, when I'm throwing out the stuff on my tray, there?s a point where I get scared that my wallet could have been on there, too. I always think, as everything is tumbling into the garbage, that I might have tossed my wallet on the tray and forgotten. It always feels possible.
So begins Jonathan Goldstein?s first novel, Lenny Bruce is Dead. It?s the story of Joshua, a young man who?s uncertain about a lot more than the possible loss of his wallet. He might as well be talking about his whole life. Josh is having a hard time finding his way in the world; deciding on a career and keeping a girlfriend are too much to handle, not to mention the fact that after the death of his mother he has moved back into his childhood suburban home to be with his father, Chick. Oh, and then there?s the arrival of the Moschiach (inventor of the infamous Love Lotion) to further complicate things.
Lenny Bruce Is Dead walks a tightrope between being searingly funny and poignant ? you?ll laugh, you?ll cry, you?ll long for Love Lotion (and a Moschiach of your own). And you won?t forget Josh ? ineptitude, scatological neuroses, urban angst, self-deprecating humour and all.
"A funny, sad, lyrical, totally perverted examination of what happens to people when the culture cares too much about sex." - Neal Pollack
"Jonathan Goldstein is like no one else. He's constantly surprising, simultaneously poetic and hilarious; an honest-to-goodness artist." - David Rakoff
"The cleanest dirty book I have ever read. Goldstein is a goddamn poet." - VICE Magazine
"Josh, the confused, creative, obsessive ladies' man at the center of Lenny Bruce is Dead, is a neurotic antihero as funny and compelling as the ones Mordecai Richler and Philip Roth used to dream up, but funnier and more compelling. With dazzling sentences and deadpan humour, Jonathan Goldstein guides us throught the odd moments and keen observations that make up Josh's gonowhere life: old men at the Burger Zoo demand hardboiled eggs for breakfast and beautiful girls bike through the earlymorning streets of Montreal in their pyjamas, a toothbrush clenched between their teeth. With Lenny Bruce, Goldstein puts the tour back in tour de force." - Paul Tough, editor of Open Letters
"This is an assured, completely original debut from a writer to be reckoned with..." Kevin Connolly
"One wishes Lenny Bruce is Dead a long life." - Kevin Chong, The National Post
"Goldstein, a former fixture on the Montreal spoken word scene, delivers a disjointed blast of fictions (is it a novel, are they "deep thoughts," are they short stories??) with Lenny Bruce is Dead. The bite-sized chapters are full of skewed observations told in a very entertaining style akin to Hal Sirowitz (or as poetically bold as Jeffrey McDaniel) as they chronicle a horny young Jewish man in a world of ambitious failures. Goldstein, who is now a producer for PRI's This American Life, has written a compulsively readable gem and hopefully we'll see more from him in the future. - Recommended by Kevin Sampsell, Powell's City of Books
"Goldstein's woeful, funny debut novel is a series of aphorism-capped vignettes, paced at the rate of approximately one scene per paragraph. As these snapshots flash past, protagonist Josh ages rapidly from child to onanistic teen to depressive adult, mourning the death of his mother and the loss of a series of vividly described girlfriends along the way. Throughout, descriptions of Josh's suburban-anytown Jewish upbringing and job at local fast-food franchise Burger Zoo, while peppered with scatological and Portnoy's Complaint-esque sordidly sexual details, often achieve a level of nuance that's poetic and almost profound. In the latter third of the book, Josh's preoccupation with a Hasidic neighbor and the "Rebbe's Kosher-style Love Lotion" that he begins to experiment with grow repetitive and confusing. But "This American Life" contributing editor Goldstein has a knack for imagery ("He was crying on the floor, pulling toilet paper off the spool with both hands like he was climbing a rope") and ear for hyper-realistic dialogue, making him a writer to watch." - Publishers Weekly
“It was happening so fast. He had this funny feeling that it might be him. It might be him that this was all about …
This is how you become a certain way. This is how you become who you are.” - Jonathan Goldstein
Reading Lenny Bruce is Dead is like channel surfing through a movie that occasionally, and terrifyingly, reminds you of your own life in shocking and embarrassing ways. Goldstein’s style is both guileless and visceral, with a humour and delicacy that reads like the sort of poetry you hesitate to call poetry because poetry doesn’t usually have so much ejaculation in it. It is the seamless contrast between the obscene and the transcendent that gives the writing its profound power. Imagery, gorgeous and decadently crude, completely unconnected to the narrative, lingers for days:
“He liked jerking off to flappers. These women were all dead but their spirit lived on in his erection and when he came, they died all over again.”
There is a sort of magic realism inherent in certain imagery that lends a lucid, dreamlike quality:
“We all saw that we were really the size of Chrysler Buildings and sex was about angels dying from the sheer beauty of it all and that the greatest pornography of all was the human imagination.”
The prose is infused with a longing for which there is no cure, except perhaps to read books like this one.
The novel, the scanty plot of which concerns a young man called Josh whose mother dies and leaves him and his emotionally helpless father alone to cope with her absence, is held together and made cohesive by remembered moments of his life that lend context to the dishevelled present:
“He ran through the snow and all he could see was white. It was as if he was dead and nobody could see him. At the depanneur, he walked through the aisles and pretended he was car exhaust.”
The novel is filled with small, breathtaking moments like that, moments that rip you backwards through time until you are a kid again, eating cereal while watching early 1980s cartoons in your He-Man underpants. It somehow evokes perfectly whatever time period in which you grew up and the time when life was the most confusing. You know you will never be happy like that again, except in retrospect.
The narrative is broken up into tiny increments that are the literary equivalent of snapshots taken randomly out of the album and scattered on the floor. These little vignettes are memories not only of Josh’s childhood and his dead mother. They also include the sordid details about all the girlfriends he has ever had, his relationship with his father, his rabbi, several of his friends, the coming of the Moschiach, and an arch nemesis or two. It isn’t a novel about coming of age, however. It has nothing to do with resolving parental issues, or coming to any conclusions about the mysteries of the human condition. Goldstein’s style has a disquieting morbidity, reminding you at the least likely moments that you are afraid to die. Certain lines of dialogue and internal narrative that perfectly articulate all the insane thoughts you don’t have the courage or imagination to put into actual words. Thoughts too profound to share out loud are expressed so simply, they almost seem mundane:
“He woke up in the middle of the night and felt nothing but that he was alive. This was the panic he kept trying to describe. Being.”
Each paragraph of Lenny Bruce is Dead is a novel of its own. Cut each one out and slip them into fortune cookies. Break one open when you need to reminded that any stupid, shitty forgettable moment of your life is beautiful and irreplaceable, no matter how disgusting or embarrassing it is. It will tell you over and over: You are completely and irretrievably alone, but you are not the only one. There is no prize for most pathetic, least loveable, or easiest to confuse. We’re all in this boat together and it’s sinking, so don’t miss out on any opportunity you get to jerk off or get laid or eat something you know will give you diarrhoea later, but what the hell. “One day there will be no difference between anything.” Goldstein writes, “It’ll all be the exact same thing. One day you’ll look in the dictionary and there will be only one word and you’ll just have to make do.”
There are books you love for reasons you can’t explain. It has little to do with what the book is about. None of the essential plot points are more meaningful to you than the ones in any other book. It isn’t the way the narrative resolves itself perfectly or charmingly unravels at the last possible minute, so you’re never quite sure if you got it or not, or even if you were supposed to. If you worry about whether or not you are “getting” a book, Lenny Bruce Is Dead probably isn’t for you. If you want a book that gets you, even if you don’t get it, then give it a try. I doubt you will be disappointed. And if you are, at least you will feel understood. Goldstein’s narrative is seemingly plotless and disjointed until at the end of it all, you look back and say, Okay. I sort of get it now. Can I just start again, please? I promise I’ll pay attention this time. For what has been called an experimental novel, there is no gimmick here. Just an honest and hilarious and deeply human story that has haunted me for nearly a decade. I’ll keep reading it, again and again, for all the decades to come." - McKinley M. Hellenes
“It’s like a joke,” said Ira Glass, “if jokes were supposed to make you sad instead of happy.”
That’s a line taken from the foreword to Jonathan Goldstein’s first novel, Lenny Bruce Is Dead. The book was originally published in 2001 and is being re-released this month by Coach House Books.
I have set up this review to reflect the form of the book to mentally prepare you for the experience of reading it. You’re welcome.
Glass’s foreword also compares the novel to a low-stakes poker game in a buddy’s basement. He is perfectly right, but I would even take the analogy a step further: the deck is missing cards. Maybe the deck is made from two separate decks cobbled together. You begin to get the suspicion that your buddy knows which cards are from which deck. He seems to do a bit better than everyone else, week in and week out. But not by so much as to suggest obvious cheating. And in the end, is it worth bringing up? Won’t it just start an argument and hurt everyone’s feelings? It probably will.
What I’m saying is—there doesn’t seem to be, at first glance, any rhyme or reason to the way Lenny Bruce Is Dead unfolds. But it’s a sort of chaos that works so well, you have to assume he’s doing it on purpose.
I had a conversation with my mother about this book over lunch on Friday. I told her about how different it was from other novels, how obtuse and abstract. She brought up the “A two-year-old could do this” canard that gets tossed around so much in the visual arts. I leaned forward and prodded the air between us with my finger. “It’s a question of trust,” I said. “It comes down to—do you trust the author?”
Goldstein, host of CBC radio’s WireTap, is evidently a strange, absurd genius. The novel is a series of short, unconnected, non-linear paragraphs about the life of a certain Josh, an unimpressive Montreal Jew with problems multifarious.
The structure of the novel suggests a kind of a literary Jackson Pollock. There are different colours visible, different strains. You sense that everything is connected somehow, and, standing back to see the whole of it, you perhaps are moved to emotion. But up close, it’s hard to parse.
I remember reading in a review somewhere that Lenny Bruce Is Dead contains as much white space as it does text. This is not true, but it’s not totally false. It functions much like memory. Everything is out of order and floating in blankness. You feel like there’s a lot you’re missing, and, let’s be honest, there is. But you can still get a picture of what happened.
The vignettes, as Glass notes, blur the line between comedy and tragedy. Often hilarious—thanks to Josh’s capacity for quirky, unusual observations, and his unerring focus on the sexual and the scatological—it is hard to read all of them in sequence without starting to see the sad side of them.
His dead mother, his listless father, his string of failed relationships, doomed from the beginning, his pathetic job at Burger Zoo, his affiliation with a Jewish messianic sect. It was hard not to imagine the book as written by Mordecai Richler’s younger, time-traveling bizarro doppelgänger.
Lenny Bruce Is Dead is a strange piece of work. I feel like it’ll stick in my gut for another couple of weeks, chewing tinfoil and flicking its tail, like the reptile one of Josh’s girlfriends believes lives in her stomach. Maybe you like that kind of book, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re not a Jackson Pollock fan. Maybe you’ve never hankered, as does Josh, for the Rebbe’s Kosher-style Love Lotion. In any case, it’s a quick read and hard to put down. You gotta give it that." - Alex Manley
"The elegiac tone of Jonathan Goldstein’s first novel, Lenny Bruce Is Dead, doesn’t have much to do with the death of the iconoclastic, detatched comic of the title. Rather, Josh, who lives in Montreal, is mournful of people closer to home; he’s hard of love and feeling emptied by the death of his mother. Moving in with his increasingly unpredictable dad, he’s troubled by memories of childhood, awakened to them by the smells of feet and food.
Lenny Bruce’s sort of energy lightens Josh’s humour. He imagines himself to be a “neurotic Jewish rooster” and has many a winking comic turn: an overwhelming scent is compared to a cross between “a brand new board game” and “a ten-year-old crapping his pants while hanging from the monkey bars.” At the same time, many of Josh’s obsessions – bathrooms, excrement, feet to be shoved into mouths – push at staid boundaries and speak (like Bruce’s routines) of a tense nihilism.
Josh is most troubled by his inability to express his wonder at the world, and worries about saying the wrong things – or terrible things – and often does. That frustration with language resonates with the book’s structure, a staccato of terse fragments that isolates the characters’ observations, and leaves many gaps to be filled in or uncomfortably passed over. Still, this work is more like poetry than prose, an effect that is heightened by Goldstein’s remarkably controlled language.
Many of the characters, Josh included, are rhetoricians, answering their own questions and telling jokes to themselves. Goldstein himself can seem altogether too self-aware, rehashing the antics of WWF wrestlers with the local rabbi for his own amusement. But perhaps such writing, so precisely observed, blooms in Lenny Bruce-ish insularity." - Mark Pupo
AT McDonald's, when I'm throwing out the stuff on my tray, there's a point where I get scared that my wallet could have been on there, too. I always think, as everything is tumbling into the garbage, that I might have tossed my wallet on the tray and forgotten. It always feels possible.
'I'll never do stuff like that when I'm a father', Josh said.
'You are a better man than I, Gunga Din', Chick said.
Josh thought that bachelorhood would mean he could wear dresses all day, but he never got around to buying any. He woke up at noon and watched The Flintstones. He played Air Supply's Greatest Hits while lying on the floor pretending to have a mental breakdown. He memorized Richard Pryor routines. He went out to buy beer in his sweatpants. He lay under the bed and pretended he was on Devil's Island.
At the bottom of the yogourt, there was something black and beetle-like. He suddenly felt a gob of vomit move up through his throat. It made him feel ten years old.
At the shopping mall there was a teenage boy who handed out pieces of paper.
'You are going to die', the papers read.
Those people thought they were getting coupons.
Josh's father, Chick, wanted to write a book about growing up in New Jersey and he wanted to call it The Corner.
Josh wanted to get his father started. He pulled a piece of loose-leaf paper from his binder and drew the cover. It was a picture of people yelling and fighting and old men sweeping. In the centre was Chick and he was screaming with his hands over his face.
He pulled out a second piece of paper and wrote an introduction. 'The corner was where men met to play cards and fist fight', he wrote.'This is one man's story.'
Before Josh sat down, he always checked the toilet water. There were stories of snakes that had crawled up miles of pipe looking for sunlight. Sometimes, right in the middle of everything, he would get up and look down between his legs.
Chick once told Josh about an old army buddy of his who went around kissing women on the hand every time he was introduced. One day he kissed the cherry on the end of a woman's lit cigarette. His lip was burned so bad he had to go to a speech therapist. It was one of his father's this-is-what-you-get stories.
Frieda, Josh's mother, would bring over food she made for him. Sometimes Josh ate it from a pot because all the dishes were dirty. He called it 'cowboy style'. When the coffee table was too cluttered and he had to eat it off his chest, he called it 'deathbed style'. One time someone came over and left a skateboard behind. He ate off that for a while, wheeling it behind him on a shoelace as he went from room to room. He called it 'little boy lost'.
Chick smacked his thighs, searching. Frieda called it the car-key dance.