canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Lenny Bruce is Dead
by Jonathan Goldstein
Coach House Books, 2001 

Reviewed by Ken Sparling

You open the book. You sit. You read. You feel you're moving. 

You turn the page. You shift your eyes. 

Your eyes move. You move yourself from word to word. You bring yourself to the next word and then the next. 

You could close the book at any minute. 

With Goldstein, the character never moves. He's here and then he's somewhere else. On the other side of the bridge of white space. You feel you're moving. Into the character? 

Maybe deeper. You feel like any moment now you'll find out something astonishing. But what's astonishing is what you feel. You feel astonishing. You never find anything out at all, and that is, in itself, astonishing. It's the fact of astonishment, pure and simple. When you look up from the words, the words are already gone before you even get to them. That's what's astonishing. 

When you read a book, you can't change things. This is so obvious, most readers don't think about it. I think about it sometimes. Maybe you can change things. Maybe you do change things. Maybe the act of reading is in essence a changing. 

On page 72 there's a scene where Chick drops toilet paper into the toilet. It's a good scene. Then on page 74, there's a scene that made me laugh. I mean really. I laughed and laughed. I looked out the window. I laughed some more. I'm not suggesting you read the pages I mention here and skip the rest. These are only the pages where I happened to stop to savour the moment. And, as I savoured the moment, it turned out I had a pen and paper. 

It's probably okay to tell you what happens in this book, because it's a book that doesn't depend on what happens. It depends only on what it says right now. 

On page 75, all in caps, by itself with space above and below, the word: 


Caught my eye. I thought, How great. This book ends in the middle. 

Earnestness is what it is. At first, it's hard to tell (believe) that Jonathan is perfectly earnest. You think he must be joking. That's what he's done. He's made everything appear, on the surface, to be a joke; yet he is, you will see, in absolute earnest. His jokes are a way of covering the dangerous earnestness he advocates. His great success is in allowing this earnestness a place despite the danger. 

On page 53, creaming into Kay's ass. That shut me up. Made me want to cry. There on the subway. 

When I started reading this book, I didn't think Jonathan was going to be able to pull it off. The first few dozen pages, I didn't know. I thought Jonathan was doomed. Maybe he was. Is. Maybe the feeling of doom is necessary. Maybe I was set up. 

What astonished me was that the book succeeded so resoundingly even though it looked like it shouldn't. Even after I realized what was happening, even after I knew Jonathan had done it, I kept thinking this shouldn't be working. That's what made it work beyond all doubt. 

If it had worked, if it had simply been one of those books you can say works, like it works just because it works, it does everything right and there was never any doubt that there was ever anything that wasn't perfectly right, then it wouldn't have been so absolutely right. It was that scary feeling that at every turn, with every step from one word to the next, things might go horribly wrong. It was that Jonathan risked that possibility at every turn, never turned away from that risk, and that the possibility of things going horribly wrong on the textual level mirrored perfectly, infected the text absolutely, not mirrored, but actually painted the characters lives to be moments that could, at any moment, go horribly wrong. 

The first passage I really like was on page 14: "He brought out his frog like Kaliotzakis told him. Kaliozakis was his best friend. He was also a maniac. When he talked about girls, he would smoosh his penis into the wall." It goes on, gets better. 

After that passage, though, nothing much for another dozen pages. 

Then: there was a moment on page 34 where a girl asks Josh, the protagonist, what he would name her nipple. It's there, in a breathless passage that I won't quote, that Jonathan seems to have overcome me. And I mean that literally. Like being held down. Like having your head held under water and just when you think, that's it, he's killed me, he let's you up. Only it isn't him holding you down. It's you, telling yourself, No way, he cannot pull this off, and then, almost after the fact, you realize he's already pulled it off. So that when you come up for breath, and you feel the exhilaration of oxygen filling your lungs, you know it was you who were holding your breath all along and what Jonathan's managed to do against all odds is give you a space to breath in. It looks like he's closing in around you, but somehow that closing in is already an opening. 

There are things that are wrong in this book (e.g. the girl in the dress made of paper towels). These are things that are deliberately wrong. So very deliberately wrong. In a case like this, what do you hear? Do you hear the wrong? Do you hear the deliberation? Do you hear both? Like two kinds of noise, creating a third, completely unfathomable entity. 

Goldstein is relentless. Just when you think, finally, after all these pages, something normal is going to happen, suddenly, it does. 

There's a "God bless the man" scene on page 106 where you suddenly understand that, whereas we generally say God bless the person who has done something good for us, or something good for someone in need, the people who really need God's blessing are the 300-pound guys who've done nothing for anyone. 

It broke up my world and made me see the no connection of things. Even calling things "things" was way beyond possibility when Jonathan got done with me. It didn't seem frightening until I put Goldstein's book away and tried to get out of my seat on the subway. 

There was one last thing I wanted to tell you, and it was important, but I can't remember. I think Jonathan made me forget.

Ken Sparling's fiction appeared earlier in The Danforth Review.







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