It’s a rare day when I call a novel a “must read.” It’s even rarer when that applies to a first novel. And rarer still when that first novel is set in another place, another time.
But Paul Goldberg’s The Yid is that exception to my must-read rule. It breaks through on so many scores — sheer brilliance, unbridled audacity, low wit, dramatic action, deep understanding … and the one I hope but can't be certain does not apply — it just might be a precursor, a warning, of what is coming, here and now.
That elevates it from “you might enjoy” through “I highly recommend” into the thin air of “must read.”
Most of the action in The Yid takes place in and around Moscow in the winter of 1953. Here's how it opens:
At 2:37 a.m. on Tuesday, February 24, 1953, Narsultan Sadykov’s Black Maria enters the courtyard of 1/4 Chkalov Street. … At night, Moscow is the czardom of black cats and Black Marias. The former dart between snowbanks in search of mice and companionship. The latter emerge from the improbably tall, castle-like gates of Lubyanka, to return laden with enemies of the people.
Stalin rules with an iron fist propelled by a paranoid brain. He is so ruthless, so capricious, so bloodthirsty, his madness inspires not rebellion but terrified obedience — either carry out his purges or be purged yourself. Either suffer in abject silence or face certain betrayal and death. Almost everyone chooses obedience and silence.
A committed communist actor, about to be sent to his death for no more reason than he's a Jew, takes another route. So does his friend, a Black American who came to the USSR to escape racism in the USA. So does another friend, another Russian destined to disappear and die at the hands of the state for the crime of being a Jewish doctor.
Eventually they're joined by three others: an aging “half nun, half harlot”; an alter kocker, an old fart who’s fearless and deadly; and a young woman seething to avenge the death of her father.
Rather than submit to state-sponsored death or ignore that this ultimate iniquity is about to take their friends and comrades, they go big. Impossibly big. Insanely big. They hatch the unthinkable plot.
And the whole time, in the midst of their plotting and planning, their acting and actions, they're insulting each other in Yiddish curses, in ageist, racist, ethnic, politically incorrect slurs. They know their lines; it’s a shtick they've been perfecting for years. Here's a sample:
Outside, two coatless old men are trying to hit each other with saber-sized sticks.
‘Paskudnyak!’ shouts Kogan. A low-life!
‘An alte tsig bist du,’ says Levinson calmly. You are an old goat.
With a deft blow, he sends Kogan’s weapon flying into the snow.
‘An alte tsig’ repeats Kogan, looking for his weapon. ‘I am a respected fifty-eight-year-old physician, and he says an alte tsig?’
‘You fight like a tsig.’
The Yid is brilliant, chilling, exhilarating, laugh-inducing, possibility-opening. It’s the best book I've read this year, the best first novel I've read maybe ever. And — again, I hope it’s not — it may be a primer on iniquities to come.
It’s a must-read.
— Jules Older
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