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Russian 'veterans of making it through' find their way to Florida

FICTION

The Chateau

By Paul Goldberg

Picador

400 pages, $26

"God save the czar!" shouts Bill, a newly unemployed Russian-American Washington Post reporter. Recently fired for insubordination, he endures a plethora of trials as "The Chateau" builds to a bizarre conclusion. The slogan is mild enough among the residents of the crumbling condo in Miami Beach. And when characters shout, whisper, write or text, Goldberg often tempers their assertions with author's disclaimers "or not," or "or vice versa." Looking for certainty? Try elsewhere.

William Katzenelenbogen, born Ilya, is the estranged son of dissident Russian poet Melsor Katzenelenbogen, whose parents constructed his name from the initials of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and the October Revolution. As the market for refusenik poets in Washington, D.C. is unspectacular, especially after Melsor's unfortunate stint at the Voice of America, he relocates to South Florida with other overqualified Russian Jewish immigrants.

Although aged and occasionally feeble, the residents at the Chateau are veterans of making it through, despite the Soviet Union's iron rule. A construction supervisor, say, may have obtained his skills operating a copper mine in a gulag. In the United States, mischief might result from misapplying those skills. And in free-wheeling Florida, "every man is his own cartel," a character declares.

Outsmarting the Soviet government meant the difference between enhanced interrogation and a cushy post in some obscure institute, or perhaps a stretch in the gulag, but that particular skill does not transfer well to the Miami Beach created by Goldberg. "Kickback" and "felony" enter the residents' vocabularies.

The Trump-supporting residents of the Chateau split into inevitable factions and pile ruse upon outrage to hijack the condo's election of its board of directors. No one trusts anyone. They all have their own ways of doing everything. They even deliberately spell "Donal'd Tramp," with the apostrophe as a nod to Russian orthography.

Reporter Bill notices that the only two books in his father's house are "The Art of the Deal," one in English, one in Russian. Major sections of "The Chateau" also are prefaced with excerpts from "The Art of the Deal," and one chapter even is titled, "Art of Deal." The condo election night in January 2017 is two nights before Trump's inauguration as president.

As the enumerator leaves to "count" the votes, three women in Russian folk costume, including headdresses, dance into the meeting room. They are singing intricate four-line poems of protest in Russian and English, written by Melsor and translated -- and sanitized --more or less loosely by Bill. The singers accompany themselves on accordion, balalaika and two wooden spoons for percussion. Just then, water pours out of the air ducts and floods the room, as a large swimming pool empties itself indoors. The vote is disrupted.

Bill eventually tracks down the flood's perpetrator, the "crazy old lady" who previously had assaulted  him with her cane as he examined her evicted belongings strewn on the curb near her former condo. A connoisseur and collector, Bill recognizes the possessions as specimens of Midcentury Modern design, however decrepit they have become.

Everything in the miniature universe that Goldberg has packed into "The Chateau" is political, with a twist. Besides the trace of Mussolini Bill sees in the Chateau, these emigrants, these exiles are applying to U.S. challenges their former coping mechanisms.

Roza, the "crazy old lady," is a former professor at the Mining Institute in Moscow and an explosives engineer at Soyuzvsryvprom, part of the space program. After years of work in Nevada mining enterprises, she has retired to the Chateau. Bill has obtained her name from a list of refuseniks circulated in 1982 by the Anti-Defamation League.  She confides to him that four pounds of dynamite "left over from work" did the trick.

Designing the Chateau, Lapidus had installed a cooling system running on cold water instead of recirculating air. In later years, a more "normal" system was installed, but the plumbing for the old one stayed in place.

Goldberg has invented too many characters to include in a single summary, but which can be spared? Certainly not Johnny Schwartz, who trained for tropical warfare in the U.S. Army but wound up in the Battle of the Bulge, during one of the coldest winters recorded anywhere. He does not see very well and shot up his Lexus by mistake with the machine gun he carries around. Johnny also is the octagenarian heartthrob of the condo.

Besides the full cast of characters, four elderly dog walkers appear only once, and the author of an ancient, fat-stained note taped to the elevator remains unseen but somehow present. The note exhorts residents, "Stop throwing orange peels from balcony." When someone removes the note or it falls off, someone replaces it.

The four elderly men walking their dogs are necessary for Goldberg to develop a dirge-like narrative of their white, fluffy pets' lives.  All day, every day, the dogs listen to the men complain; they hear the elderly men's elderly wives complain, all for Goldberg's punchline: "If the dogs could kill themselves, they would."

Oh, and what is estranged Bill doing in Florida with the estranged Melsor? He is gathering information for a book exposing why Bill's former college roommate plunged from the 43rd floor of a hotel.  Did he jump? Was he pushed? Was it an accident? Bill needs the book for income, after being fired for capers that management not long ago would have ignored.

The old roommate was a plastic surgeon known as the Butt King of Miami Beach. The Butt King's demise may be a bizarre premise for a novel, yet Goldberg manages to find obscure but relevant Russian poetry about being on the edge, physically and existentially.

His lyrical passages about being airborne reveal an aspect of Goldberg's writing kept under wraps throughout the rest of the book. Perhaps he saved it for the end. His general observations may or may not satisfy readers fond of closure, but at times we must make do with ambiguity. Anyway, "The Chateau" is rich enough to read more than once.

This book also poses a challenge that the copy editors have met with flying colors. Goldberg uses transliterated Russian, with English in parentheses; Russian in the Russian alphabet; bold face; italics; and various type sizes. The headaches are worth the fun of word- and idea-play in English, French, Russian and Latin.

One of Melsor's election leaflets calls on the residents to "Vote for New Lidership" and "Make Chateau Great Again." Not to worry: Goldberg already has

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.

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