In Goldberg's debut, set in 1953, a pair of offbeat Jewish characters and an American Negro come to terms with life, death, and theater as Stalin's final pogrom gains steam.
Divided into three "acts," the book opens with an early-morning knock on the door of Levinson, a frail old veteran of the Red Army and the now-defunct State Jewish Theater. Surprised at how open Levinson is to their visit, a state security official and two soldiers quickly discover he is no harmless clown via his sudden "pirouette with Finnish daggers." A short time later, Levinson joins up with Kogan, a noted surgeon he knows from the army, and Lewis, a black friend who came to the Soviet Union from the United States for a factory job, to dispose of the three dead bodies, get rid of a black security van, and make plans to assassinate Stalin. The killings become an excuse for them to trade mortal visions, political philosophies, and especially tales of the days when Levinson, dubbed "the janitor of human souls," took a back seat to the great actor Solomon Mikhoels, who, before his murder in 1948, was director of the Jewish Theater. Largely based on stories passed down by the author's father and grandfather, the book contains facts that still unsettle. You could squeeze 60 people into a single cattle car "if you don't care how many of them are still breathing upon arrival," the 400,000 Jewish citizens of Moscow into 130 trains, and the entire Jewish population of the USSR into 730 trains. But this sophisticated entertainment transcends historical detail with flighty dialogue exchanges that, presented in script style, seem like a cross between Samuel Beckett and Sholem Aleichem. References to other real-life figures, including Paul Robeson and Marc Chagall, add to the color.
For all its dark, discursive content, Goldberg's novel about unlikely rebels plotting Stalin's downfall is streaked with hard-earned wisdom.