A fast-paced, name-dropping tour through the recent past, complete with obligatory calls at various Big Moments. Sophomore novelist Goldin (Simple Prayers, not reviewed) begins his story in 1929 as the stock market crash roils New York. Aging Jean Pierre Michel Chernovsky has enough money to ride out the Great Depression, but this legendary lover of numerous women has never married and now desperately wants a son. Enter young Benjamin, orphaned by his parents' double suicide and discovered in the car driven by Jean Pierre's chauffeur and sidekick, beautiful African-American Cassandra Nutt. Benjamin has two notable qualities: a large strawberry birthmark on one side of his face and the ability to dematerialize and go anywhere he desires. Cosseted by his new father with every luxury, he travels to Europe, where he meets many luminaries and uses his powers to steal rare weapons for Jean Pierre, an avaricious collector. Benjamin converts to Judaism, takes up the saxophone, and reads widely; when Jean Pierre seduces the girl he loves, he runs away to Europe for keeps. There, as WWII begins, he joins a group of Dutch-Jewish vaudeville artists. When all are sent to a concentration camp, Benjamin tries but fails to include his friends in a dematerialization that would spirit them away to Sweden. He himself joins the French Resistance, and from then on the action is nonstop and frequently absurd. In the 1950s, back in New York, Benjamin plays at a Harlem jazz club, marries black nuclear physicist Charlene, and, to help a cancer-ridden Cassandra (now a TV star), gives up his mysterious powers to fuel a prototype computer. As Jean Pierre dies watching the first men walk on the moon, Benjamin has an epiphany: "the world was full of miracles . . . full of comings and goings . . . you just had to watch for them." Drive-by history with a clumsy subtext that strains for meaning and heft.
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