2016, pp. 320, $26
Paul Goldberg's debut novel, The Yid, may remind many of its readers of the movies of director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino, and especially his 2009 World War II film Inglourious Basterds [sic], in which a French-Jewish cinema proprietor and a Jewish-American military squad work together to assassinate Hitler and others. Like that film, Goldberg's novel begins with a shocking, comic scene of aestheticized violence, and then it proceeds to tell the story of a cadre that assembles with the aim of assassinating Stalin in early 1953.
Sensible as the comparison might be, The Yid isn't just Tarantinoism applied to late-Stalinist Russia, though. It's more like what you might get if you crossed the iconic filmmaker with the novelist Dara Horn, author of The World to Come (2006), among other books. Horn's novels, which regularly win Jewish book prizes, delight audiences with how much history they manage to pack in. That makes sense if you know that Horn's initial ambition, when she set out to become a writer, was magazine journalism. Maybe this helps to explain why Goldberg, who has been a working journalist for 35 years, produced something similar upon turning to fiction: an easy-to-read patchwork of scenes and flashbacks that advance a narrative but also make it possible for him to fold in a few dozen historical tidbits and personalities.
The novel's plot, in other words, is rather slight. Goldberg's group of inglorious bastards includes a washed-up Yiddish theater actor, a doctor and a Yiddish-speaking African-American engineer with nothing to lose. One night, when soldiers show up at the door of the washed-up actor, Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, instead of meekly letting them carry him away to a dungeon, or Siberia, he kills them all. Knowing his time is limited and he now has nothing to lose, he meets up with a pair of his cronies, Kogan and Lewis. They hide out briefly while formulating a plan, and then set out to assassinate Stalin. That's it.
But while that plot dribbles out, readers of The Yid encounter a kind of greatest hits of Soviet and especially Soviet-Jewish history: Goldberg offers, for a couple of examples, squibs on the development of Magnitogorsk, a Soviet mining city deliberately modeled on Gary, Indiana, by American contractors, and on the repertoire and personalities of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, GOSET. The novel includes, predictably, an...