McKinley M. Hellenes’ Thoughts on Lenny Bruce is Dead by Jonathan Goldstein

Published in 2006 by Counterpoint Press.

“It was happening so fast. He had this funny feeling that it might be him. It might be him that this was all about …

This is how you become a certain way. This is how you become who you are.”

–Jonathan Goldstein

Reading Lenny Bruce is Dead is like channel surfing through a movie that occasionally, and terrifyingly, reminds you of your own life in shocking and embarrassing ways. Goldstein’s style is both guileless and visceral, with a humour and delicacy that reads like the sort of poetry you hesitate to call poetry because poetry doesn’t usually have so much ejaculation in it. It is the seamless contrast between the obscene and the transcendent that gives the writing its profound power. Imagery, gorgeous and decadently crude, completely unconnected to the narrative, lingers for days:

“He liked jerking off to flappers. These women were all dead but their spirit lived on in his erection and when he came, they died all over again.”

There is a sort of magic realism inherent in certain imagery that lends a lucid, dreamlike quality:

We all saw that we were really the size of Chrysler Buildings and sex was about angels dying from the sheer beauty of it all and that the greatest pornography of all was the human imagination.”

The prose is infused with a longing for which there is no cure, except perhaps to read books like this one.

The novel, the scanty plot of which concerns a young man called Josh whose mother dies and leaves him and his emotionally helpless father alone to cope with her absence, is held together and made cohesive by remembered moments of his life that lend context to the dishevelled present:

“He ran through the snow and all he could see was white. It was as if he was dead and nobody could see him. At the depanneur, he walked through the aisles and pretended he was car exhaust.”

The novel is filled with small, breathtaking moments like that, moments that rip you backwards through time until you are a kid again, eating cereal while watching early 1980s cartoons in your He-Man underpants. It somehow evokes perfectly whatever time period in which you grew up and the time when life was the most confusing. You know you will never be happy like that again, except in retrospect.

The narrative is broken up into tiny increments that are the literary equivalent of snapshots taken randomly out of the album and scattered on the floor. These little vignettes are memories not only of Josh’s childhood and his dead mother. They also include the sordid details about all the girlfriends he has ever had, his relationship with his father, his rabbi, several of his friends, the coming of the Moschiach, and an arch nemesis or two. It isn’t a novel about coming of age, however. It has nothing to do with resolving parental issues, or coming to any conclusions about the mysteries of the human condition. Goldstein’s style has a disquieting morbidity, reminding you at the least likely moments that you are afraid to die. Certain lines of dialogue and internal narrative that perfectly articulate all the insane thoughts you don’t have the courage or imagination to put into actual words. Thoughts too profound to share out loud are expressed so simply, they almost seem mundane:

“He woke up in the middle of the night and felt nothing but that he was alive. This was the panic he kept trying to describe. Being.”

Each paragraph of Lenny Bruce is Dead is a novel of its own. Cut each one out and slip them into fortune cookies. Break one open when you need to reminded that any stupid, shitty forgettable moment of your life is beautiful and irreplaceable, no matter how disgusting or embarrassing it is. It will tell you over and over: You are completely and irretrievably alone, but you are not the only one. There is no prize for most pathetic, least loveable, or easiest to confuse. We’re all in this boat together and it’s sinking, so don’t miss out on any opportunity you get to jerk off or get laid or eat something you know will give you diarrhoea later, but what the hell. “One day there will be no difference between anything.” Goldstein writes, “It’ll all be the exact same thing. One day you’ll look in the dictionary and there will be only one word and you’ll just have to make do.”

There are books you love for reasons you can’t explain. It has little to do with what the book is about. None of the essential plot points are more meaningful to you than the ones in any other book. It isn’t the way the narrative resolves itself perfectly or charmingly unravels at the last possible minute, so you’re never quite sure if you got it or not, or even if you were supposed to. If you worry about whether or not you are “getting” a book, Lenny Bruce Is Dead probably isn’t for you. If you want a book that gets you, even if you don’t get it, then give it a try. I doubt you will be disappointed. And if you are, at least you will feel understood. Goldstein’s narrative is seemingly plotless and disjointed until at the end of it all, you look back and say, Okay. I sort of get it now. Can I just start again, please? I promise I’ll pay attention this time.  For what has been called an experimental novel, there is no gimmick here. Just an honest and hilarious and deeply human story that has haunted me for nearly a decade. I’ll keep reading it, again and again, for all the decades to come.

McKinley M. Hellenes is a writer living in the Ruskin area of Mission, British Columbia. Her writing has appeared in various magazines of ill repute. She is currently at work on a novel about Post-War Vancouver and a Feminist look at Holocaust survival, for which she received a Canada Council for the Arts Grant. She spends her days waiting for the seals to come take her away. In the meantime, writing stories suffices.

3 thoughts on “McKinley M. Hellenes’ Thoughts on Lenny Bruce is Dead by Jonathan Goldstein

  1. I love this review, especially about opening a paragraph like a fortune cookie when needing to be reminded that everything in life, good & bad, has value. I have enjoyed Jonathan Goldstein on the radio from time to time- would enjoy reading his work.


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