The sign of a great literary noir is one that cannot decide whether it is about crime or about an existential crisis. This is the story of Paul Goldberg’s novel The Chateau, a detective story that is as humorous as it is sinister. The opening pages point toward a book about the curious suicide of an infamous plastic surgeon who operated on the posteriors of wealthy Florida women; but the novel takes a turn and instead begins to drill into the frenzied, booze-addled inner life of disgraced journalist Bill Katzenelenbogen.
Hours after being fired from his longtime job at The Washington Post, Bill learns that his friend and former college roommate, the butt-surgeon, had plunged to his death from the balcony of a glitzy Florida hotel midway through a scandalous sexual misadventure involving the surgeon’s wife and one of his patients. With less than two grand in his bank account, Bill sets out to write a true-crime-tell-all about the death of his friend in the hopes of securing an advance. But the life and times of the butt surgeon are in turn sidelined by a story of Bill’s reunion with combative Russian dad and the absolute insanity of the old man’s war against his condo board.
Old Jewish Florida happens to be one of the most boring versions of Florida and yet I am almost disappointed that more of the book wasn’t dedicated to the world of Machiavellian squabbles among elderly Jews that Goldberg depicts with such flair. Bill’s father writes traditional Russian poetry about corrupt condo board officials as if he’s in some Pushkin-era battle of wits. Bill plays the role of reluctant private dick on his dad’s behalf—jumping onto balconies, breaking and entering, planting bugs in phone lines—and also acts the lone voice of reason in this world of immigrant stubbornness and Trump support and, if I had to guess, syphilitic dementia. Not surprisingly, parts of the story resemble Kafka’s novel The Castle, about the veiled machinations of the authorities overseeing a local castle.
The book treats the idea of a detective story with total irony, toppling it over onto itself—which is perhaps the greatest homage a writer can make these days to a particular form. The hallmarks of mystery fiction are teased out faithfully and yet so irreverently that the novel becomes a sort of anti-noir. Bill does not belong to the world of sleuths working traditional cases and instead gives himself the moniker of “Inspector Luftmensch,” recognizing his role as a sort of ethereal detective answering to a higher power. He is, like the book itself, an anti-dick.
The title is well-earned. Bill can’t hold his liquor, blows his own cover, breaks into a house while someone is still home, brings stolen objects back to the place from which he stole them. His femme fatale is actually the most stable and supportive force in his life, not some blonde who seeks to ruin him. His ineffectuality unravels the detective trope and spins it into something entirely new.
Even self-narration is done in the third person. Goldberg finds a way to give readers a deeply textured glimpse into Bill’s mind without ever speaking from it directly. And still, it is bursting with footnotes and explanations of how Bill’s world operates. How to tell if vodka is good, how to make obscene toasts in Russian, how to re-create the nuanced pronunciation of immigrant English, how to appreciate the poetry of Russian crooners, how to break down a source, how to investigate one’s own inner turmoil as if were itself the subject of a news story. People, even ordinary people totally disconnected from the mystery, become fodder for the detective and his writer. People are a game, a marvelous spectacle to behold.
Despite his anti-dick foibles, Bill has many of the truest qualities of noir detectives. He is mathematical even to the point of psychosis about what he likes to the drink; his internal radar for danger is flawed; he buddies up with elegiac figures; he has a deep appreciation for technical aspects of the world and the mannerisms of those he encounters, as if using them to get at the heart of a person’s motivations and solving this human puzzle offers him flashes of tremendous glee and triumph. His entire world is laid before the reader in such a deeply intimate manner that is at once so typical of noir and so unlike it.
Goldberg’s Florida is as surreal and full of danger, comedy, characters, and absurd detours as the Coen Brothers’ Los Angeles. And as is the case with The Big Lebowski, a macro look at some of the genre’s greatest works shows just how much The Chateau belongs to it. A search for a rare artifact that was effectively in the apartment the whole time; an insurance salesman who ends up fatally gutshot 20 minutes into his first scheme; a man who is hard to find because he had plastic surgery to make himself look Mexican.
Goldberg’s style, on occasion, dips into a sort of lyrical fluidity detached from arcs and narratives and instead shows us a series of impulses and instincts and meanderings belonging to the brain and heart of his main character, all of which is so easily understood even if not entirely linear, as if he is writing something that is itself only intelligible to our gut—something that plays into the meanderings of our brains and hearts.
Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.