The condo board dictators

Paul Goldberg’s latest novel is a slapstick send-up of the Trump era set in a Florida retirement community.

Illustrative (photo credit: ZACH FOLZENLOGEN/TNS)
(photo credit: ZACH FOLZENLOGEN/TNS)
The Chateau, Paul Goldberg’s new novel, begins a few days before the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump. Goldberg’s hero, William M. Katzenelenbogen, a 52-year-old science writer for The Washington Post, has been fired for insubordination. His college roommate, Dr. Zbigniew Wronski, a plastic surgeon known as the “Butt God of Miami Beach,” has fallen or jumped to his death from a 43rd-story balcony at the Grand Dux Hotel in Hollywood, Florida. And Melsor Yakovlevich Katzenelenbogen, Bill’s octogenarian father, a larger-than-life poet, Russian refusenik, and perpetrator of Medicare fraud, is engaged in a titanic struggle over “special assessments” with the Russian-Jewish officers of the board of the Chateau Sedan Neuve Condominium Association.
Before he is done, Goldberg (a journalist, whose first novel, The Yid, appeared in 2016, and who has written books about human rights in the Soviet Union and the American healthcare system) will satirize, among other topics, Trump’s America, crime, kleptocracy, fascism and Florida.
The Chateau deploys a grab bag of literary techniques. Chateau Sedan Neuve is a homage to Morris Lapidus, the architect of “Miami Modern.” Goldberg refers often to Nikolai Gogol’s play The Inspector General. The name Melsor, we learn, was a tribute to Marx, Engels, Lenin, and the October Revolution. And the plot, such as it is, turns on Bill’s familiarity with “Kaddish,” Aleksandr Galich’s musical composition about Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto, tried to save his children from starvation, and then prepared them to die.
That said, The Chateau is, at bottom, a slapstick send-up of 21st-century authoritarianism. It is, at times, rather funny. Melsor’s declaration of candidacy for vice president of the Chateau’s board of directors, for example, declares his support of limited government, compares ICII, the contractor hired by the condo, to its “near namesake, ISIS,” lays out his “Contract with the Chateau,” and promises to “Make the Chateau Great Again!” At a contentious condo board meeting, at which apartment owners question whether the officers “bid the rigs” and demand to see the contracts, vice president Greenstein (who, according to Melsor, “learned transparency from Hitler’s Reich”) opines that angry faces make him sad, and declares: “I guess there are no comments. All we heard were questions. Since not everybody here speaks English well, let me explain: an opinion doesn’t end with a question mark. A question does. Again, we will not be taking questions at this time. Does anyone have any opinions?” More often, alas, the novel reminds us that it is difficult to go over the top of the already over-the-top realities of 21st century American culture and politics. And avoid clichés. The Chateau has many, too many, old Jewish people jokes. Johnny Schwartz is an almost blind, frequently drunk 90-year-old veteran of the Battle of the Bulge who fires his machine gun into the ocean every night. Roza Kisel keeps whacking Bill over the head with her crooked cane, as she screams about svolochi. To celebrate his (German) wife’s birthday, Jonah Greenstein (the old man with a micropenis) arranges for a ménage, drugs the two men he has hired, then refuses to pay them, because they have not “performed.”
In Florida, the narrator tells us, “nothing is what it appears to be.... Husbandly duties are not husbandly duties, fiduciary responsibilities are not fiduciary responsibilities. Folks pay $100 to attend 80th birthday parties, out of fear that no one will come to theirs. Casual encounters are not casual encounters, mm4w is not mm4w, idiots are not idiots, Viagra is not Viagra, Grey Goose is not Grey Goose, everyone has an angle, everyone has a fraud.”
For decades, Bill tells himself, “people came to Florida to die.
They still do, but now they insist on stuffing the planet into the coffin with them. If death is boring, the end of the world is the most boring thing in the world.”
To be sure, The Chateau has an (ostensibly) happy ending. The bad guys get their comeuppance, and Bill affirms that the truth never fails to satisfy, that it sets you free. He forgives elderly Floridians for getting distracted, “even by Donald Trump.” He may even get his girl. Melsor will kiss a mezuza hidden in the back of a rotting fence post, and affirm that if a maintenance worker removes it with a crowbar, he will buy a new one. If the posts are pulled down, he will use trees, for this – and not the apartment – “is the place that needs protection.”
Nonetheless, it seems to me, Goldberg leaves readers in a darker place, with Bill asking God why He has not allowed him, “your sometimes faithful servant,” to continue to exist, like so many other narcissists, and “indeed thrive, in blissful isolation from the world you created.”
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.