The star of Paul Goldberg's irreverent historical novel is an aging actor with an unusual set of skills and a notion to knock off a dictator.
Back in his heyday, in the years after the Russian Revolution, Solomon Shimonovich Levinson was a featured performer in the Moscow State Jewish Theater's production of "Kinig Lir" ("King Lear" in Yiddish). The show was a kinetic one, and it centered on Levinson's specialty: At a crucial moment, he would launch himself through the air, meting out justice with a pair of precisely manipulated blades.
As the book begins, on a cold night in early 1953, lots of time has passed since Levinson's saber-wielding acrobatics. But when Soviet boss Josef Stalin's henchmen arrive in the wee hours and try to cart him off, his muscle memory kicks into overdrive. Suddenly, "Levinson is airborne once again," Goldberg writes, "a one-man Judean Air Force: a single pirouette, two Finnish daggers" — and three dead secret policemen.
On one level, "The Yid," Goldberg's first novel, is a tribute to the millions who were exiled and murdered during Stalin's ruthless three-decade reign (it's dedicated to Goldberg's parents, Russian Jews who managed to escape with their lives). On another, it's a celebration of Jewish humor, theater and language — Yiddish is sprinkled throughout the book, and, in choosing the title, Goldberg reclaims the word "yid" from those who've used it as a slur.
These are weighty themes, but "The Yid" wears them with style, because it also happens to be a satisfying thriller.
The novel's inciting incident is an order from the Kremlin: Stalin has ordered his secret police to jail law-abiding Jews. Levinson, however, is having none of it. After dispatching the tyrant's enforcers, he links up with friends who have their own grievances against the regime.
Levinson's compatriots are a varied lot. One, an African-American engineer who moved to the USSR for professional and political reasons, has grown disgusted by state-sanctioned persecution, greed and racism. Another, a doctor who's "a hero of two wars, a partisan in the Civil War, a military surgeon in World War II," is among the Jews who face imprisonment. A third member of Levinson's team is a young woman who grew up in a Soviet orphanage and feels a kinship with society's oppressed.
Recognizing that his aborted arrest means Stalin is escalating his murderous campaign against Jews, Levinson rallies his friends: "We must go for the top. The very top. Nothing less than a beheading will do." It's a plot that will take them to the inner sanctum of the despot's heavily guarded dacha.
Though often very violent — in one scene, the term "rapid exsanguination" is aptly employed — this is also an improbably funny book. Goldberg's characters bicker their way toward an act of revolution, undermining one another in comic fashion: When an impromptu corpse disposal incites a bout of vomiting, one of the plotters tells Levinson that he witnessed a similar reaction in a theater. "When?" Levinson asks. "When you were onstage!" comes the reply.
Replete with imaginative action sequences, smart-alecky sidekicks and a quixotic conspiracy meant to right many years of wrongs, "The Yid" is a bracing fictional take on a crucial moment in history.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.
By: Paul Goldberg.
Publisher: Picador, 307 pages, $26.