The Yid by Paul Goldberg
Picador, 2016; 320 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
Paul Goldberg’s The Yid is a brazen debut novel set in the last days of Stalin’s rule over Russia. This darkly comic story blends fact and fiction, drawn from a story Goldberg heard from a family friend when the author was just a boy. The man told Goldberg about a Jewish woman who lived in a nearby apartment who was arrested for allegedly killing a Russian girl to use her blood in motzos. This story was Goldberg’s first exposure to anti-semitism, the same kind of toxic mythology that informs the lives of the Russian Jews at the center of The Yid. The central characters are about to be rounded up for execution, Stalin’s own Final Solution. As the novel opens, Levinson, a theatre actor, is about to be arrested by three government thugs. Levinson does not submit, allowing himself to go the route of the wrongful persecuted Yakov Bok inBernard Malamud’s The Fixer. Instead, Levinson swiftly kills all three men, shifting the story into the realm of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.
With dwindling options, Levinson dons the uniform of his would-be imprisoners, loads their bodies into their truck, and takes the vehicle onto the road, intent on killing Stalin. He is not alone, aided by Lewis, an African-American man living in Russia, a surgeon named Kogan, and the mysterious woman Kima. This unlikely band of rebels features great characters that allow Goldberg to navigate through the sordid world of Soviet politics and the people affected by it.
The book jacket aptly describes The Yid as a “Soviet Ragtime”, a comparison, while true, I didn’t necessarily find complimentary. The book has a sprawling narrative, traversing through time and introducing many minor characters, some real and others not. I found myself unable to keep track of action and time with some of the jarring shifts, which made The Yid plod along as conflict escalated. For many readers, this might not be a problem. Goldberg is such a commanding prose writer, lending real verve to his philosophical musings and the heightened insanity of events.