Attempting to pin down the thematic DNA within Paul Goldberg’s debut novel, The Yid, may dredge up some questions fairly early on within the 306 pages. Questions that wonder where the stage ends and the audience begins. Questions about what separates history from legend, legend from myth and myth from historical fiction. And questions regarding whether or not identity politics inform resistance narratives. But readers might do well to give up the search for answers just as quickly as the questions arise. That’s because there are none here. Which is fine, of course. The problem is that by the time the reader reaches the story’s second act—more on that later—one can’t help but wonder if Goldberg ever seriously asked any of those questions in the first place, or if they are merely narrative devices used to reinforce the concept of life’s unanswerable questions.

The Yid begins during the week leading up to the death of Joseph Stalin. At this point in history Black Marias and train cars were rolling out to begin rounding up all the Jews in Russia for what likely would’ve been the second biggest pogrom in history. The novel focuses on the story of Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, a Jewish Soviet soldier turned second-string actor. While he overcomes his would-be captors he forms a group of friendly dissidents-by-circumstance who together hatch a plot to assassinate their country’s dictator. If this is starting to sound a little bit like Inglorious Basterds to you, you’re not mistaken. To be fair, however, that much is acknowledged by the publisher—a comparison to the film appears on the book jacket as well. Fortunately, regardless of some similar plot points, the novel never comes across as derivative and manages to carve out its own territory in a genre that features accounts of fictional assassination attempts on historical dictators.

The absurdity of such a concept is not lost on Goldberg, either. The story is told less like a traditional piece of historical fiction and more like a theatrical staging (increasingly so as the story goes on) —hence the three-act stage play homage within the book’s structure. The characters often play to type within the structure as well, although they thankfully feel like more than mere set pieces. From that playful use of stereotypes, in fact, comes some of the more interesting and comedic aspects of the novel. For example, when Levinson gracefully overpowers the agents sent to arrest him, maiming them with ninja-golem might, Goldberg writes, “There, he was unburdened by technique. This is all stage.”

Slowly but surely we arrive at the Shakespearian conceit that yes, this is all a stage, one assembled primarily for an action-comedy to play out with a chorus of hyperactive gallows humor and blood-curdling guffaws. Late in the novel, for instance, Levinson begins to embrace the Russian stereotype of Jew as murderous cannibal and engages in a deadpan debate with his comrades on the logistics of fluid procurement for a Blood Seder. This is the sort of comedic gold that gives The Yid its pulse. Goldberg tap-dances around stereotypes to bring laughter to very serious sets of circumstances through the use of stage play-esque techniques. Even when it feels that at times Goldberg tries to unsuccessfully sprinkle his encyclopedic historical knowledge into the text, there’s always an eye-wink waiting behind the curtain to diffuse the deadly serious bits, and ham up the stereotype jabs.

The Yid is a metafictional revenge fantasy masquerading as historical fiction. It’s a frustrating but fun read with enough laugh-out-loud moments to make up for each early-abandoned theme and then some.

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