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February 14, 2012

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“A Visit From The Goon Squad”

by Anne Paddock
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A Visit From The Good Squad was written by Jennifer Egan and awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  The 340-page book has won numerous other awards and endorsements but has also been criticized for its unconventional format. At first the book appears to be about a group of characters in the music industry but music serves as a backdrop for the characters across the generations. Reading about alternative bands such as “The Dead Kennedys” (I still wonder who would name a band after a family laced with tragedy) and “The Sleepers” brought back memories of college friends who followed these groups and gives an authenticity to the story.

The title, referring to a “goon squad” was perplexing – a goon squad is a group of thugs which led me to initially believe that maybe this book was more of an adolescent/young adult read,  similar to Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The significance of the title was not made clear to me until I heard the author on NPR explain the reference to a “goon squad” as a metaphor for time and what it does to all of us: robbing us of youth, beauty, success, happiness, and life.

The book contains 13 chapters and by the time I reached the fifth chapter, I was turning back the pages, referring to previous chapters, underlining, and writing notes in the margins in an attempt to understand and link the various characters of the novel.  There are two central characters: Sasha and Bennie but as the reader progresses through the novel, there are numerous characters that are somehow linked to Sasha and Bennie in different decades. Looking back, there are two things I wish I had while reading the novel:

1.  A list of the main characters with brief descriptions; and

2.  A sentence about each chapter that includes whose perspective the story is written from and the year from which the story is being told.

None of the above information gives away anything from the story and does not solve the puzzling nature of the novel (I’m still trying to figure out the whole story and I’ve read the book twice) because one-liners that link characters are dropped seemingly inadvertently throughout the book and are easy to miss.  This is a story told from many different perspectives at different points in time that reeks of the theory behind six degrees of separation: we are all within six steps from every other person on earth. Having some basic information eliminates the distractions and allows the reader to enjoy the chapters as they are written yet still try to figure out how it all fits together.

Character Descriptions:

  • Bennie Salazar: A music producer, formerly married to Stephanie with whom he has two children; grew up in San Francisco and high school friend of Scotty; one-time employer of Sasha who is replaced by Lulu; father of Chris; marries a much younger woman named Lupa and fathers a daughter, Ava in middle age;
  • Sasha Grady: A one-time wayward young adult and kleptomaniac who had a one night stand with Alex; daughter of Beth and Andy Grady (who is replaced by stepfather Hammer); is married to Drew with whom she has two children (Alison and Lincoln);
  • Lou: An LA record producer; Bennie’s mentor, thrice married womanizer whose last wife is Mindy; father of six children whose favorite, Rolph commits suicide at 28; one-time lover of 17-year old Jocelyn;
  • The High School Crowd: Bennie, Scotty, Jocelyn, Rhea, Alice;
  • Scotty Hausmann: Guitar player; likes fishing, loved Alice and was married to her for four years;
  • The Flaming Dildos: The punk rock band formed by Bennie and Scotty as teenagers;
  • Drew:  Husband to Sasha and father to Alison and Lincoln; a doctor, friend of Bobby;
  • Stephanie: First wife of Bennie; mother to Chris; publicist that works for Dolly Peale;
  • Jules Jones: Stephanie’s older brother, a writer who was convicted of attempted rape and kidnapping of a young starlet named Kitty Jackson and served 5 years in prison before resuming his writing career;
  • Jocelyn: One of Lou’s young lovers;
  • Rhea:  Jocelyn’s friend; mother of 3 children;
  • Alice: the love interest of Bennie and Scotty; marries Scotty but divorces him four years later;
  • Ted Hollander: Sasha’s uncle; brother of Sasha’s mother, Beth; professor,;husband to Susan and father to three sons;
  • Robert Freeman: College friend of Sasha and Drew; suicidal; also known as Bobby and Rob;
  • Alex: one-time date of Sasha, married to Rebecca and father of baby Cara-Ann; in awe of Bennie Salazar;
  • Lulu Peale: Dolly Peale ‘s daughter; father is an unknown movie star (possibly Dean?); becomes Bennie’s assistant; marries Joe (from Africa);
  • Kitty Jackson: a starlet we see as a 19-year old on top of the world and again as a 28-year old struggling;

Chapter Information

Chapter 1: The first chapter introduces Sasha when she is in her mid-30’s and no longer working for Bennie Salazar.

Chapter 2: It’s 2006 and Bennie Salazar, a forty-four year old music producer is introduced in this chapter along with his 9-year old son, Chris.

Chapter 3: Rhea is the narrator of this chapter which takes place in 1979 in San Francisco with the core high school group of Bennie, Scotty, Rhea, Jocelyn, and Alice.

Chapter 4:  It’s 1973 and Lou, a middle-aged record producer is on a 3-week safari with his 23-year old girlfriend, Mindy (who will become his third wife), 2 children (Rolph and Charlene who goes by Charlie) and a host of other characters that will emerge in future chapters.

Chapter 5: It’s 2005 and the old high school group sans Scotty has come together to say good-bye to the dying Lou who has been ravaged by time.

Chapter 6:  Told from the perspective of Scotty who is in his 30’s and in New York City in 1997.

Chapter 7: Five years later (2002), Bennie along with his wife, Stephanie, and 5-year old son Chris have moved to Crandale, an upscale suburb.

Chapter 8: It’s 2008 and Dolly Peale, a disgraced middle-aged publicist is forced to take on murderous dictators of foreign lands to support herself and young 9-year old daughter, Lulu. Kitty Jackson, a 28-year old starlet is also introduced.

Chapter 9: Backtrack to Jules Jones’ version of what led to his conviction for attempted rape and kidnapping of 19-year old Kitty Jackson in 1999.

Chapter 10: The chapter is narrated by Bobby – Sasha (20 years old) and Drew’s college friend.

Chapter 11: Backtrack a year and Ted Hollander has volunteered to go to Naples to find his 19-year old niece, Sasha who ran away two years prior.

Chapter 12: Narrated by Alison Blake, Sasha and Drew’s 12-year old daughter. Told through a power point presentation.

Chapter 13:  Bennie, Alex, and Lulu come together to bring Scotty back to the stage.

The most meaningful part of the book for me was (Chapter 12) by 12-year old Alison who provides her story in an unconventional but believable method for her generation: the power point presentation. Alison’s brother, Lincoln is autistic and finds meaning in the pauses in music which drives Drew (the father) to impatience. Sasha attempts to help her husband understand that:
“The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.”
There are pauses throughout life when the end seems near but life goes on. But, there is an end and a visit from the goon squad ensures the end will come for time really is like a group of thugs.
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