A Visit from the Goon Squad

Bad memories ambush multiple characters in this novel about a washed-up punk rocker and his klepto assistant.

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Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

The title evokes a violent sneak attack—rangy thugs toting baseball bats. But in Egan’s multithread fourth novel, the bad guys are bad memories, ambushing their victims with the weapons of shame and regret. Disgraced publicist Dolly guzzles brandy straight from the bottle when “memories of her demise”—a New Year’s Eve party that left countless VIPs scalded with oil—“plowed through her like a hot poker.” Her boss, the punk scenester turned high-powered music producer Bennie Salazar, actually keeps a shorthand list of the past incidents that blindsided him (“Kissing Mother Superior, incompetent, hairball, poppy seeds, on the can”) so that he can better control what his therapist calls his “Will to Divulge.” Bennie’s resentful burnout friend Scotty, meanwhile, “thinks so much about not thinking about Bennie that there was barely room left in [his] brain for thoughts of any other kind”—unless they’re thoughts of not thinking about his ex-wife. The book’s epigraph is a warning from Proust about “hazardous pilgrimages” down memory lane, but Goon Squad suggests that these expeditions are more like forced marches, by characters kidnapped by their own minds.

Egan’s heavily populated book often reads as a cautionary tale of poor impulse control: Bennie’s personal assistant is a kleptomaniac, his brother-in-law goes to jail for assaulting a starlet, and there are not one but two incidents of career sabotage involving animal manure. Goon Squad, like Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, is also an unsparing, sometimes despondent look at middle age, which Egan renders as a desolate cul-de-sac, particularly when she trains her eye on Bennie’s collapsed marriage. Leaping nimbly from character to character and back and forth in time, A Visit from the Goon Squad occasionally reads less like a novel than an interconnected series of short stories, which is apt: Each chapter is a fresh start, one that any one of Egan’s scarred, searching characters might long for.

Egan reads Wed 9 at Greenlight Bookstore

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By Jennifer Egan (Knopf, $25.95)

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