TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Murder and madcap adventures come together in Paul Goldberg's unconventional debut novel "The Yid," which is set in Stalinist Russia. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Much of what you need to know about Paul Goldberg's singular debut novel is encapsulated in its title, "The Yid." To paraphrase the late comedian Henny Youngman's classic line, take that title, please. But as brash as it may be, that title is Goldberg's way of giving his readers fair warning. He's written a novel, after all, that's bound to offend some of the people some of the time. "The Yid" doesn't play nice. In fact, it plays fast and loose with history as well as with conventional approaches to writing about anti-Semitism and genocide. "The Yid" is an ambitious historical fantasy based on some facts concerning a plan cooked up by Stalin to purge Jews from the Soviet Union in 1953. In the spring of that year, Stalin had accused a group of nine mostly Jewish doctors of plotting to fatally poison the Soviet leadership. It's been argued that Stalin was going to use the so-called doctor's plot as a trumped up excuse to round up Soviet Jews. We may never know for sure what Stalin ultimately had in mind because he died before the trial of the accused doctors took place. But the doctor's plot is the factual history that propels Goldberg's novel into antic supposition. We're told in the last pages of "The Yid" that historians troll with broken nets. In contrast, Goldberg trolls the past with an armored front loader scooping up shards of folklore, rumor, urban legend, bits of fact and nuggets of fiction to create a wild what-if story about the triumph of frivolity over fascism, madcap invention over evil. You could call "The Yid" a lot of things, but the one thing you can't call it is dull. The opening scene of "The Yid" is a killer, literally. In the early hours of a frigid Moscow night in 1953, a black Mariah (ph) pulls up outside the communal apartment of Solomon Levinson, an aging actor in the now shuttered state Jewish theater. Levinson is on a round-up list, and the three state security officers sent to arrest him expect the standard response of protest, tears and terror. Instead, Levinson welcomes these goons with a deep bow and politely inquires if they're familiar with the Commedia dell'arte tradition. While they're still wondering how to handle this apparently mad actor, Levinson launches into one of his signature stage moves, an airborne pirouette in which he flashes two daggers that in quick succession, sever the throats of his would-be arresters. Now the problem is how to dispose of the dead bodies. Enter Levinson's friend, Friedrich Robertovich Lewis, an African-American Communist sometimes mistaken for Paul Robeson, who's lived in the Soviet Union for two decades. Before this long night is over, they'll be joined by another comrade, a Jewish doctor named Kogan, and the three men will set out on a wild road trip that eventually culminates in a suicide mission to assassinate Stalin. Goldberg's writing is as spry and pointed as that pirouette that Levinson executes. There are clever playlets and monologues interspersed into the main narrative here as well as flashbacks that deepen the humanity of the characters. That complexity is particularly true of Lewis who emigrated to the Soviet Union in the 1930s partly to escape American racism only to predictably find himself treated as an oddity in the allegedly colorblind worker's paradise. Evoking the clash of tone and subject found in movies like "The Producers" and "The Great Dictator," "The Yid" is a screwball farce about atrocity. History here is portrayed as a mad improvisation in which the actors take charge and manically rewrite the script even as they enact it. Paul Goldberg's animating intelligence gives all this madness a stunning coherence that these days we all too rarely get from either art or life.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Yid" by Paul Goldberg. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Bassem Youssef who became known in the U.S. as the Jon Stewart of the Arab world after he created and hosted a show of political satire in Egypt inspired by "The Daily Show." He started it after the revolution that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But the next president, Mohamed Morsi, didn't like being satirized, which led to an arrest warrant and the end of the show. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.