The Château by Paul Goldberg (acclaimed author of The Yid) takes us behind the scenes of a Florida condo board election, delivering a wild spin on Miami Beach, petty crime, Jewish identity, and life in Trump's America (available February 13, 2018).
It is January 2017 and Bill has hit rock bottom. Yesterday, he was William M. Katzenelenbogen, successful science reporter at The Washington Post. But things have taken a turn. Fired from his job, aimless, with exactly $1,219.37 in his checking account, he learns that his college roommate, a plastic surgeon known far and wide as the “Butt God of Miami Beach,” has fallen to his death under salacious circumstances. With nothing to lose, Bill boards a flight for Florida’s Gold Coast, ready to begin his own investigation―a last-ditch attempt to revive his career.
There’s just one catch: Bill’s father, Melsor.
Melsor Yakovlevich Katzenelenbogen―poet, literary scholar, political dissident, small-time-crook―is angling for control of the condo board at the Château Sedan Neuve, a crumbling high-rise in Hollywood, Florida, populated mostly by Russian Jewish immigrants. The current board is filled with fraudsters levying “special assessments” on residents, and Melsor will use any means necessary to win the board election. And who better to help him than his estranged son?
I like to think big. I always have. To me it’s very simple: if you are going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.
The Art of the Deal
THE BUTT GOD
Let us not focus on the events that sent Zbignew Wronski over the railing of a forty-third-story balcony of the Grand Dux Hotel on South Ocean Drive in Hollywood, Florida, on January 5, 2017. Salacious rumors are usually true, but it’s unlikely that everything said about the man known as the Butt God of Miami Beach could be.
It is plausible that immediately prior to the plunge, Zbig was with two women, only one of whom was his wife. The sometimes-Pygmalionic sometimes-Oedipal ethics of cosmetic surgery being what they are, it is plausible that the other woman—if she existed—was a “patient.” “Client” would be a better word. To qualify for the moniker “patient,” one should be ill, which no one in Dr. Wronski’s care was. He was an exterior designer. A posterior designer.
Consuela Ramirez-Wronska unquestionably was a client. Her taut buttocks, tanned, set like jewels in a black thong, continued to grace the Web site of Zbig’s practice for many days after their maker’s fatal plunge. A “before” picture was not provided.
Big Zbig collaborated with a specialist in vaginal tightening. This partner didn’t seek to be known as either the Vagina God or the Vagina Caesar. A little man who liked money, he would have been fine with Vagina Elf.
For years, rumors circulated that Zbig’s clients tested their rejuvenated nether regions with their tall, handsome, broad-shouldered Slavic surgeon.
Had the ancient, some say outmoded, Hippocratic rules of medical ethics been applied, that test would have been regarded as problematic. Some might suggest that it would have been more appropriate to utilize a simple device that faithfully mimics the human organ. But even if these rumors were grounded in fact, it was clearly agreeable, even upon reflection, to all parties involved. Zbig’s disciplinary file at the Florida Board of Medicine in Tallahassee was pristine.
An artist must either love or hate his or her medium in order to reimagine and reshape it. Men’s butts left Zbig indifferent. He didn’t do men; this might as well be established early.
Before drilling deeper into Zbig’s life and his death in a search for clues about his final flight, we will consider the flight itself:
You are over the edge, you versus gravity, uninsulated, unparachuted, with nothing to forestall the shattering of the atrium’s nine-foot glass panes, a gentle bounce off a steel girder, the breaking of the pipes of the sprinkler system, the final fifty feet of flight in the halo of glass shards and streams of water, toward the indoor palm trees and bar stools. Do your thoughts focus on the circumstances that caused your flight? Does it matter whether the genesis of flight is voluntary, accidental, premeditated, impulsive, or the consequence of foul play? Do you experience fear, a fleeting mourning for your life, or do you swallow the swill of salty air, morning mist, cloud and fog, stretching the boundaries of ecstasy, surrendering to rapture, convincing yourself of your power to deploy your exaltation as a mystical tool for changing the inflection of your gravitational doom?
Decades earlier, when Zbig was a student at Duke, his roommate—a fellow Slav—was obsessed with the raspy-voiced, screaming Muscovite poet Volodya Vysotsky, the kind of bard who uses exclamation marks more than any other form of punctuation:
Я коней напою,
Я куплет допою,-
Хоть мгновенье еще постою на краю!
I’ll water the stallions,
I’ll finish the song,
I’ll stand on the edge for a moment more!
The roommate’s name was William M. Katzenelenbogen.
* * *
The dateline changes to WASHINGTON.
We are at Martin’s Tavern, a storied Georgetown bar, where we find William M. Katzenelenbogen.
Martin’s is not an imitation pub, not faux English, not a dive. Washingtonians have come to Martin’s for generations, sometimes several times a week. It is said that JFK proposed to Jackie at a Martin’s booth (Booth No. 3), that—presumably on a different night—Dick Nixon poured ketchup over everything, and that J. Edgar Hoover was seen playing footsie with Boyfriend Clyde or perhaps trawling the place for cute, clean-cut boys. Martin’s is what a pub should be: you can bring the family if you’ve got one, or you can sit at the bar and be as withdrawn as you wish. Martin’s treats gin with respect.
Bill’s appearance evokes the image of an outsized terrier. He is six feet tall on the dot. Lean, with no trace of a middle-age paunch, he sports a closely trimmed beard and an identically cropped head of coarse hair. His hair color was never static. It turned from straight and blond to curly and light brown sometime before college. Now, fifteen minutes past middle age, it looks like a fragment of the coat of an elderly Airedale. Not the back of an elderly Airedale, which is salt-and-pepper, but a front paw—an arm—which turns salt-and-cumin, or some such.
Bill has ordered Tito’s and regular Bombay (not Bombay Sapphire), a vodka and a gin, mixed 1:1, shaken, with not a thought of vermouth. Rinse out the shaker. He fucking hates vermouth.
It’s January 6, 2017, 6 P.M.—two full weeks to go before inauguration, installation, ascension, coronation, sanctification, consummation, or putsch—whatever is the right name for this thing that history has dragged in.
The image of the president-elect is on two of the television screens above the bar, a silent montage of his puppet hands, his pouting lips, his aggressively orange face topped with the mop of misshapen yellow hair.
The third screen serves up grainy images of the massacre du jour, this time at the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport. A crowd on the tarmac waits, panicking in place. A high school yearbook mug shot of the shooter flashes on the screen. Not ISIS this time—just a baby-faced psychotic, being a good boy, obeying commands from the voices that whisper in his skull.
On second thought, it’s possible that inner voices do not whisper. They may toll, like bells, for thee, and thee—and thee. Possibly, some of these voices are more legitimate than others. Some may be healthful, even beneficial; how is one to know? As a science writer—make that a former science writer—Bill doesn’t have a blessed clue. No one to ask, no place to look for answers, no reason to.
A Twitter icon pops up on one of the Trump screens. It’s about Putin ordering the hacking of the election and celebrating—dancing like a Cossack, presumably—when his boy prevailed.
Fuck it, all of it, Bill declares, looking away, turning his attention to the wood grain of the bar, his eyes contemplating the complexity of its gentle waves, seeking solace, escape even. Of course, Bill is mistaking these asymmetrical shapes for nature’s assurance that this episode of search for simplicity shall pass, as it has at various times in Italy, Germany, Spain, the USSR, for nature itself gravitates toward democracy and social justice, self-correcting, inevitably, conveniently.
The act of reading reassuring, determinist messages in the wood grain is yet another indicator of being intensely in need of a drink, and, fortuitously, a drink is precisely what is about to happen in Bill’s life.
The bartender is new and needs to be instructed.
“Tito’s and Bombay—is there a name for this?” he asks, filling the martini glass with the liquid he has expertly clouded via intensive interaction with ice in the shaker.
“TB,” Bill improvises.
“Would a twist make it better for you?”
* * *
It would take more than a twist or even an olive to make things better for William M. Katzenelenbogen.
Bill is a science writer and an investigative reporter: an investigative science writer, one of the best of his generation, a serial finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Loeb Award for Excellence in Financial Journalism as well as a laureate of a boxful of lesser prizes, most of them dispensed by the Association of Health Care Journalists and something called the Washington Professional Chapter of the American Society of Professional Journalists.
A top-flight journalist in his thirties and forties, he flew into turbulence after crossing into his fifties.
Two hours ago, he was discharged, unceremoniously—for cause—presumably to be replaced on The Washington Post payroll by three low-paid, tech-savvy youths.
He marched out of the newsroom brandishing a broomstick, which, witnesses said, he held with pride and devotion, like a cross at an Easter procession. A two-man Easter procession this was: a rent-a-cop followed. All of Bill’s friends had taken buyouts or been fired years earlier. He was the last of the generation. There should have been music. Incense should have been burnt.
Why the broomstick? you might ask.
Reporters of Bill’s ilk get lectured about the need to stop using the word “nail” as a verb in discussing targets of inquiry. At thirty, shortly after joining the Post, he stopped making references to castrations with dull, rusted blades. By forty, he mellowed a bit more and stopped likening the art of writing stories to the act of shoving broomsticks—indeed, entire brooms—up the recti of people who had betrayed the public trust: corrupt government officials, avaricious CEOs, data-cooking scientists.
At one point, Bill proposed developing a scale for measuring impact in inches shoved, and in 1998, a group of interns presented him with just the broomstick he proposed. It was a fond gift for what amounted to contributing to delinquency of newsroom minors.
This broomstick was to be aimed at proverbial, as opposed to corporeal, assholes. In the newsroom parlance of the post-Watergate era, a broomstick salute seemed to be a fitting punishment. A good investigative story is a weapon, the enemy is the enemy, and denying humanity of the enemy is a requirement in all combat, including the combat that is journalism.
For nearly two decades Bill kept the broomstick hidden behind a filing cabinet near his desk, a time-capsule-preserved artifact from the days he thought such things were funny. He moved and rehid the broomstick when the Post relocated to its techy new quarters.
The first inch shoved was marked “Denial of all Allegations”; two inches—a “Letter from Lawyers”; three—“Acknowledgment of Minor Clerical Errors”; six—“Tearful Apology”; eight—“Resignation”; eleven—“Restitution”; fourteen—“Conviction”; eighteen—“Meaningful Change.” Arrows near the tip of the broomstick pointed in the direction of “Revolution,” indicating that an additional broomstick will be required.
Bill was not about to leave this time-honored journalistic artifact, this totem, in enemy hands. The other aged memento he took was his Rolodex, which he dropped into the bike messenger’s bag that served as his briefcase. He hadn’t updated any of the yellowed cards in two decades, but the Rolodex was in perfect working order: it spun.
Being jettisoned by your profession—for insubordination, let the record show—was the biggest betrayal in a life rife with them.
The firing was simple: an officious, heavyset, middle-aged woman with long fingernails (from Personnel, presumably) read the verdict. There was no editor in the room. They were busy chasing details on the Fort Lauderdale airport shooter.
There was a paper they wanted Bill to sign and an envelope containing a check he would earn by agreeing to various crap the Post wanted him to do and not do, but Bill said “Fuck You.” He didn’t sign shit. He had neither grounds nor plans to sue; the Fuck You was a matter of principle.
It’s difficult to be fired for cause at the Post. It means somebody up high has generated paperwork and the Newspaper Guild was asleep. Being fired for cause means no severance package. (The check dangled in front of him was a pittance, he presumes.) His upcoming paycheck will be his last. And “insubordination” is just another word for being moved to a stultifying beat and being forced to write stories that need not be written and demoralizing you enough to force you to phone it in for a few years and finally quit. What do you expect when you dispatch someone like Bill to Fairfax County, the place he doesn’t know how to find or what to do with once he is there?
After the Easter procession, Bill heads to Martin’s, and here he is, on his beloved bar stool, in the southwestern corner, his broomstick leaning like a personal flying device against the bar. He is receiving an ice-cold TB.
If wine at a communion symbolizes the blood of Christ, a TB at Martin’s symbolizes Christ’s spinal fluid.
* * *
“I’ll have what he’s having,” says a young woman, sitting down, and in the same motion, Yogically, lifting the broomstick. She handles it with care, reverence even, like a fragile artifact from the distant past.
“Another TB coming up,” says the bartender.
There is no hug, no handshake, not even a tap on the shoulder, just the raising of the broomstick. She lifts it, turns it over, admires the scale. There is a boundary between them, perhaps professional, perhaps personal.
“Gwen, a pleasant surprise,” says Bill, staring at the nadir of the cone of his martini glass. She is in her midthirties, a redhead, freckles. She settles in, crosses her legs.
Gwen was once a gonzo take-no-prisoners reporter. A star straight out of Harvard, she went from intern to Style at twenty-two. She was the princess of Style, pounding booze, banging out Salingeresque copy by the yard, covering social Washington—reporting from parties—producing dross about misbehaviors of people convinced of their larger-than-lifeness. No one since Sally Quinn had a better ear for quotes or eye for mischief. Bill thought she wrote like a dog eats—fast, gasping, grunting, hiccupping, with emanations of saliva—but it was young, energetic prose. And she was a hoot to drink with. His thoughts about her were mostly chaste. They’d slept together only once.
“I heard,” she says, awkwardly placing her hand on the back of his neck and leaving it there. “I thought I’d find you here.”
Bill takes the first sip of TB, its coldness deadening the nerve endings as it seeps toward the absolute darkness of his aching Russian soul.
“I almost forgot: it takes eighteen inches to get ‘Meaningful Change,’” she says, running the broomstick through her loosely clenched fist.
“This seemed hilarious at the time,” she adds upon reflection. “It’s deeply offensive, actually.”
She should know. She was the lead author of the scale, one of the interns who produced this object.
“Gwen, our president-elect would dismiss your reaction as political correctness.”
“An argument for political correctness, in my book.”
“Was this a flavor of ‘locker room talk’ then—‘newsroom talk’?”
As Bill considers her legs through the prism of the martini glass, his peripheral vision registers the amused look on the face of the bartender. They are nice legs, draped in black tights, with lots of distance between the knee and the herringbone tweed hem. He reflects on the freckles that live beneath those tights.
In 2008, Gwen was dismissed, publicly, humiliatingly, for fabricating a story. Then it turned out that many stories over many years were tainted. As of today—January 6, 2017—they have something in common—discarded by the Post; she for fabrication, he for insubordination. Both guilty as charged.
Bill takes another sip.
“Remember what you told me when I was shit-canned?” she asks.
“You said, ‘Write a fucking memoir. Take responsibility for things you did and things you didn’t do: going down on French poodles, smuggling baby pandas to private zoos. Apologize for slavery, apologize for the Holocaust, apologize for the loss of habitat of gorillas and the clubbing of white baby seals. Accept all responsibility, falsify backward if you must. You are no longer a reporter; it doesn’t matter anymore—the worse the better. Nobody has ever gone wrong by taking too much responsibility. Own your guilt, own your unmooring, reach for more, more, more.’”
“Sounds like my voice.”
“It was quite an oration—and good advice. It saved my life.”
“How would you have done it?”
“The big it? I lived in a high-rise across the river—thirteenth floor.”
“Your advice, it was amoral: survive, lie backward, emerge on the other end, come out on top.”
“I am an immigrant. A refugee even.”
He drains his martini glass and motions to the bartender to refill it.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“You told me that if I play it right, I would own something big: remorse. Your words exactly: ‘You can’t overdo remorse. It’s infinite.’ And another thing you said: ‘When you stake out your claim on remorse, name your Porsche after me.’”
“A Porsche named Katzenelenbogen? No. I named it Remorse. Same as the memoir. Have you read it?”
“No. What color?”
“The Porsche or the memoir?”
“Yellow. You should’ve kept in touch. I fell from grace, sure, but I didn’t die. I kept thinking about you all afternoon, since I heard about the firing: ‘If Bill were a disease, which disease would he be?’”
“Is a ‘fuckup’ a diagnosis recognized by the American Psychiatric Association?”
“I was in the realm of the American Medical Association. You are diabetes, Mr. Katzenelenbogen.”
“Your wounds don’t heal.”
“You associate me with open sores? Amputations?”
“I guess it might explain why I want to touch your hand and tell you it’s okay.”
They look away from each other. She was once forbidden, first as an intern, then a disgraced reporter, a falsifier of fact, a betrayer of public trust, a threat to the safety of journalistic boundaries.
He reached out to her when she was found out, when she was unmasked. He listened. He offered advice, good advice at that, it turns out. But at the time that was all he could be, an off-the-record friend, a secret well-wisher. She was radioactive, and he had no death wish.
“It’s great to see you, Gwen, don’t get me wrong, but why are you here?”
“To watch you drink, take you to your apartment, and tuck you in.”
“To make sure I don’t blow my brains out?”
“Returning the favor.”
She pinches his cheek in the boundary-transgressing manner of old Jewish ladies; where did she learn that skill?
They down three rounds of TBs, soak the toxins with liver and onions, a Martin’s specialty, then get a second wind.
The walk up Wisconsin Avenue to Bill’s apartment takes about half an hour.
“Why did we get into the racket?” he asks as they pass the gray marble hulk of the Russian embassy.
This little strip of the USSR just happens to sit on the highest point in Washington. If the president-elect is planning on draining the swamp, this joint is as far from a swamp as you can get.
“Journalism? It was very personal, I guess. I was tired of being told that things were not as they appear,” Gwen answers.
“That the smell on my father’s breath wasn’t alcohol. That my mother wasn’t kissing the next-door neighbor. That Mom and Dad weren’t really fighting last night. That they love each other. That Grandma’s death didn’t matter because life is for the living. That my dislike of spinach was illusory. That I could discuss anything with my parents, that they accept me the way I am.”
“Gwen, that’s dysfunction, alcoholism. What does it have to do with career choices, the mission in life?”
“I thought that as a reporter I would be able to tell the truth as I saw it, with the emphasis on as I saw it. No second-guessing, no denials.”
“Yes, Gwen, the world is knowable, or so we journalists want to think. We are wrong.”
“It seemed knowable at first, until lies took over, yet—paradoxically—I am no worse for it. What about you?”
“I had no choice. My mother was murdered by a quack. My father is a felon.”
“Which? The quack or the felon?”
“It gets complicated—but both are guilty as fuck.”
“Your father—tell me about him.”
“If you cross American fraud with Russian literature, you get what?”
“I give up.”
“You get Melsor Yakovlevich Katzenelenbogen, an expert in both—my beloved father.”
“I can see the two of you are close. Are you even in touch?”
“We haven’t talked in a while.”
“A few months?”
“A few years.”
“Ten, maybe twelve. Let me guess, you come from a line of wing nuts?”
“Not at all. Progressive as can be. Professors at the University of Michigan. Dad is in the English department, Mom is an ethicist. Why would you ask?”
“Being a reporter.”
“You were judging, actually. You can’t find a smidgeon of charity in your cold heart to forgive your poor old father, an asshole though he could be. Judging, judging, judging.”
“That’s what we do. We are judges of the benchless sort. That thing about crime, punishment, betrayal, it runs right through the gut.”
“It can’t be helped, I suppose.”
* * *
Bill’s palm brushes against her back as they walk up the stairs and enter his apartment. Her overcoat is soft, blue, cashmere, maybe camel hair.
He lives in a one-bedroom, above a restaurant on the corner of Wisconsin and Macomb.
“This place hasn’t changed in a decade. Eight years, forgive me. Danish modern, Swedish functionalism, industrial this-and-that. I would never have believed that a guy like you would gravitate to this.”
“I look like a Salvation Army sort?”
“Sort of. And this place is like something out of Dwell.”
“No, I am good. I am open to one kiss—just one, half on the lips, a little longer than casual, but not by much—hear me?—and then I will go home and sleep in my bed, alone.”
“Of course, it wouldn’t be contextually inappropriate for you to spend the night, if you can pardon the multiple negatives.”
“I disagree. You’ll fuck me for the license to talk all night about the boundary between fact and fiction and right and wrong.”
Gwen kisses him on the cheeks and quickly pulls away.
“Spare me, Bill … They are porous. No hard walls—it’s a continuum. Playing with them is like scratching a scab—don’t, Mr. Diabetes. With that, I bid adieu, with full expectation that you will call me when you are ready to ask me out on a proper date, which you didn’t do last time I was here—asshole.”
Copyright © 2018 Paul Goldberg.
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Paul Goldberg’s debut novel The Yid was published in 2016 to widespread acclaim and named a finalist for both the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the National Jewish Book Award’s Goldberg Prize for Debut Fiction. As a reporter, Goldberg has written two books about the Soviet human rights movement, and has co-authored (with Otis Brawley) the book How We Do Harm, an expose of the U.S. healthcare system. He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, a publication focused on the business and politics of cancer. He lives in Washington, D.C.