This new release, by a celebrated author who’s lived his life splitting time between Boston and Guatemala, and whose work I’ve never read, is a sterling example of what’s come to be known as autobiographical fiction, or just autofiction. Which is to say, perhaps, fiction taken from one’s own life: not just as nearly all fiction is, but as in the characters and plot turns and all the rest being based on the real people and places and occupations at the center of the author’s own life.
Frankie Goldberg is the first-person narrator. He’s burdened with a frizzy and unruly mop of hair, big protruding ears and a thick brow, and he’d been dubbed “Monkey Boy” by a schoolyard bully early on. His father, Bert, is a Jewish American who is violent with his only son. He’s also the inventor, as it happens, of methodologies for making false teeth that surpass anything on the market. Alas, Bert doesn’t own the business he works for, and mostly it’s the owners who get rich from it all. About this Bert does what he does about everything in life—he gets angry about it. He mistreats everyone around him, insulting not just Frankie but Frankie’s mother, Yoli, and his sister Lexi, whom Frankie tells us was younger, taller, faster and could hit a ball farther when they were young. When Frankie ends up in an emergency room, the “doctor, with a sharp look, tersely asked how I’d become injured, and when my father answered that I’d hurt myself playing football, his mouth tightened and his somber eyes settled on my face for a moment and looked away.” To make matters worse, the Catholic priest, at the church where his mother takes them, preaches that “Jews are born in sin and die in sin. No Jews can go to heaven. Better a bad Catholic than even the best Jew.” What’s a Frankie Goldberg supposed to do with that?
Or this: At Bert’s funeral many years later—the novel skips around in time, which I found difficult but doable—a neighbor, Teddy Feinstein, whose father worked all the time, tells how Bert always had time for him as a boy; he let him help with the rosebushes and the vegetable garden, took him to a nearby pond and taught him to skip rocks. When this eulogist begins to cry and eventually sits down, our narrator—Francisco—adds:
“Bert never took me to the pond to skip stones. Your father likes everyone else’s children more than his own, I remember my mother saying. I remember lying awake in bed that night after the funeral, asking myself what I could have done as a boy to make my father like me as much as he did Teddy.”
This isn’t just believable because it’s autofiction. It would be true whether or not made up by the novelist, because it’s a path some—perhaps many—boys and girls have endured. But it’s not one I’ve known or even thought about for more than a moment. My father and mother stood by me whatever bonehead moves I’d made, and I made plenty. These are the kinds of truths—about interior lives others endure but you have not—that come from reading the best literature, whether it be fiction, nonfiction, autofiction, biography or whatever.
Near the end of the book, Goldman tells us of a time when he was writing a book on the murder in South America of a Catholic cleric, and talked to a man he calls here simply “The Witness” because he testified against a guilty gang at great peril to himself. If it hadn’t been for the Witness, he tells us:
“I wouldn’t have published my book on the case. I would never have fled Mexico City to come back to New York. . . . Take the Witness out of my life, and who am I? It’s like the Witness is my spirit guide, my soul’s humble but heroic companion. But is my life fully my own if its course could be so altered by the Witness?”
You bet it is. We all have them, I think, these people who, often unwittingly, say something or do something, or even just ask a question of you in cocktail chatter when you haven’t seen each other in years; and the simple question you’ve been asked changes you, even if that change takes many more years for you to accomplish. I know—this happened to me when I was twenty-five, talking to an old friend during half-time at a Super Bowl party—and it changed my life, not right away, but eventually and forever.
So thanks again to that old friend, and to Francisco Goldman for a terrific novel that is mechanically very different and more difficult than what I usually read, but yields all the gifts great literature can bring.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .