A pool table quivers when the rack breaks. All eyes focus on tangents. But when the balls come to rest so does the initial thrill. The shortcoming of Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Goon Squad” is its reliance on momentum only. A postmodern satire on the vicissitudes of time as filtered through the music industry, its interconnected worldview is weighed down by men and women on the wrong side of 40 whose perspective on memories of “rebellion and hurt” have turned tragicomic, whether in work or love, or both.
The story’s glue is the maze-like history of music producer Bennie Salazar. It uses industry characters and lifelong friends to generate sidebars that read in the spirit of Altman jump-cuts (snippets that cover 50 years and come to rest in a more musically prosperous future, after “fifteen years of war and a new baby boom.”). While this omniscient loop colorizes lives lived “in the moment” — moments change but time marches on — depth is harder to come. Irony is inescapable, sincerity implausible, and even the most well-meaning characters complicit in the novel’s cosmic joke.
“Once” is the operative word, beginning with redhead kleptomaniac Sasha, once a teenage truant in Naples (a city of “knotty entrails”), an assistant to Bennie, and finally the mother to 12-year-old Alison, whose slide journal on family life and musical pauses comprises most of the novel’s coda. Bennie (portrayed from ages 16 to 60) once belonged to a band called The Flaming Dildos and was a protégé of producer and womanizer Lou, who is now dying. Lou is visited by the now-aging women who once populated his harem, most now divorced or disappointed. There’s also Bennie’s first wife Stephanie, a one-time pupil of fading PR maven El Doll (really Dolly Peale) who once spun the image of a genocidal general by using a waning star named Kitty Jackson who — by the way — her journalist brother Justin tried raping during a celebrity interview. Dolly’s infant daughter Lulu will take Sasha’s role as Bennie’s assistant in the “paperless, deskless, commuteless” future, which Egan lampoons unconvincingly.
“Time is a goon,” says suicidal rocker Bosco (later to own a dairy farm), and Egan’s ensemble cast the spokespeople for its “squad.” A few of her time-warping characters are poignant, but most are speed-dial abbreviations on a postmodern phone. Music is everywhere mentioned but nowhere in the heart of the people.