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Tuesday, Sep 25, 2018
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Review: Paul Goldberg’s ‘The Chateau’ sets sharp political satire in a Florida condo

The election is fraught with wild allegations and vicious character assassination, accusations of corruption and kickbacks, misspelled messages and outrageous debates ó and of course the Russians have their hands all over it.

The 2016 presidential race? Maybe worse: a condominium board ballot in South Florida.

That condo combat provides the setting for Paul Goldbergís riotous new satirical novel, The Chateau. But itís also set in January 2017, ticking down the days to Donald Trumpís inauguration, an event that concerns its main character just as much.

On top of his liberal shock over Trumpís election, Bill Katzenelenbogen has just been hit with a major double whammy: Heís been fired, and heís heard that an old friend has died.

"A top-flight journalist in his thirties and forties, he flew into turbulence after crossing into his fifties," Goldberg writes of Bill.

"Two hours ago, he was discharged, unceremoniously ó for cause ó presumably to be replaced on The Washington Post payroll by three low-paid, tech-savvy youths."

Bill has also just learned of the dramatic demise of his college roommate, Zbignew Wronski. After they roomed together at Duke, Zbig went on to fortune and a degree of fame as a plastic surgeon known as the Butt God of Miami Beach ó Bill calls him "a posterior designer."

Bill hasnít seen him in years. Now Zbig has taken a dive ó jumped? pushed? ó off a 43rd-floor balcony (in the room attached to it: two women, one his wife) at the Grand Dux Hotel in Hollywood.

That upscale slice of Floridaís Gold Coast, perched just north of Miami Beach, also happens to be the site of Chateau Sedan Neuve, home to Billís father, whom he hasnít seen in 12 years.

Why not? "If you cross American fraud with Russian literature, you get. ... Melsor Yakovlevich Katzenelenbogen, an expert in both ó my beloved father."

When Bill was a boy in Moscow, Melsor was a heroic refusenik poet, the "poet laureate of the Jewish emigration movement." He made it to the United States with his family, but he expected a government job that never materialized and diverted his creative energies into health care fraud.

Melsor was caught but managed to hide enough of his money to retire to Florida, where he and his third wife (whom Bill has never met) are ensconced at the Chateau, where most of the other residents are, like them, Russian Jewish retirees with time on their hands. Hence the intensity of the condo board elections, for which Melsor is a candidate whose posters urge voters to "Make Chateau Great Again!"

The newly elected U.S. president has enthusiastic support among the Chateauís residents, though their Russian accents render his name as "Tramp." As Bill points out, "It stands to reason, subtly, weirdly, that a high-rise almost certainly dominated by immigrants would be a bastion of Trumpís brand of xenophobia. Where is it written that people must love their own kind?"

Heís not surprised by the buildingís political atmosphere, but he is shocked by its decrepit condition. One of his passions is mid-century modern architecture and design; he idolizes Morris Lapidus, the architect who created the style known as Miami Modern (and another Russian Jew). The nearby Fontainebleau Hotel, Lapidusí signature building, is a temple to Bill.

Chateau Sedan Neuve, he learns, was partly designed by Lapidus. Now, though, itís a wreck: "He is witness to an epic disaster. A waterlogged, crumbling building on this stretch of the Gold Coast is as incongruous as an automobile graveyard in Midtown Manhattan."

Bill has come to stay with his father not because he misses him (the feeling is mutual) but because he wants to find out why Zbig died. Itís not just personal affection; itís his Plan B for the future. "This thing has the makings of a book, a play, a movie, a musical, an opera even. DEATH OF THE BUTT GOD. ... This is magical thinking, perhaps, but itís either that or driving an Uber."

He finds himself diverted from Zbigís case, though, by the mystery of the Chateauís ongoing rapid disintegration and by his entanglement in the board election as his father spreads a rumor that Bill (whom no one there knows is Melsorís son) is an investigator, perhaps from the FBI.

Goldberg, who lives in Washington, D.C., is a journalist and the author of three nonfiction books, one on health care and two on the Russian human rights movement. His acclaimed 2016 debut novel, The Yid, was also political satire, set in Moscow in 1953 in the days leading up to Joseph Stalinís death.

In that book, a planned Jewish pogrom hung in the balance. In The Chateau, the stakes are a little less life and death, but Goldberg brings a similar brand of zany, absurdist humor laced with dark social commentary. (I was reminded often of Catch-22.)

Goldberg also knows the Sunshine State. At one point, Bill is talking to his fatherís wife, no-nonsense Nella, about whether something is legal.

"Listen yourself to what you say," Nella says. "We live in Florida. Understand? Flo-ri-da."

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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