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Humorous, energetic, and inventive, the stories in Josh Goldfaden’s debut collection are laugh-out-loud funny. Goldfaden’s genius is in pushing the limits of absurdity without sacrificing the emotional core of his characters or their stories. A nanny works for a traveling writers colony (his charge is named Camus). A pirate saves up for his own restaurant. A litter specialist tackles the overstuffed homes—and psyches—of the rich. As zany as they come, Goldfaden’s characters seek purpose and community and, every now and again, they find it.
"The seven far-out stories in Goldfaden's impressive debut explore the absurd without giving in to it. The first story, 'The Veronese Circle,' encapsulates a four-week group tour from Verona to Istanbul (and back) by six young writers who paid thousands of dollars to be guided by a Romeo and Juliet-quoting professor and his wife. 'Documentary' imagines how a young filmmaker, Samantha, will mature emotionally (and what may come of her relationship with her rising star painter boyfriend) while filming hours and hours of women giving birth. 'Looking at Animals' delves into the inner life of another kind of documentary photographer: after 30 years of photographing wild animals around the globe forNational Geographic, Raymond retires and begins an acute interest in the goings-on of his neighbors. Admirably, Goldfaden roams widely and erratically, from surfers living on an exclusive beachfront ('Maryville, California, Pop. 7') to a bizarre set of contemporary pirates who give up robbing yachts to join a pirate-busting agency ('Nautical Intervention'). Goldfaden is an undeniable talent."
—Publishers Weekly Starred Review
"Using language as kinetic and inventive as his playful yet pointed plots, Goldfaden is sure to delight readers eager to embark on a refreshingly original literary adventure."
“Like his ardent, tilted characters, Josh Goldfaden explores the disconnect between empirical evidence and our true understanding. Why doesn’t studying something teach us anything? His cast of characters includes pirates and writers and many folks in between and their labyrinthine investigations are chronicled with a sharp satirist’s eye. Here is a talented writer at the bright edge of his career.”
—Ron Carlson, author of A Kind of Flying and Five Skies
“Swift, surprising, funny, and in the end unexpectedly moving. Like the work of George Saunders, these stories seem to take place in a world right next door to our own, a world that’s brighter, stranger, bolder than ours. I was sorry to see this book end.”
—Kevin Canty, author of Winslow in Love and Honeymoon and Other Stories
“Sexy and syncopated, the stories in Human Resources hearken the twin pleasures of jazz: a sense of surprise and the weight of inevitability. In turns ironic, improvisational and knowing, Josh Goldfaden's stories are laced with play and passion, racing across the page with melodic humor and a soulful harmony. He’s the Thelonious Monk of fiction.”
—Adam Johnson, author of Emporium and Parasites Like Us
"Tin House is not so quietly putting out some awesome fiction and this is yet another example. Emotionally complicated, funny, page turning."
A thirty-seven-foot schooner heading south under power at twelve knots in the Ionian Sea, northwest of Corfu.
Pertunda: Italian goddess of sexual love and pleasure, presides over the marriage bed. That is, the deflowering of virgins.
The Main Deck
Cap gives the signal to cut the boat’s engine, so Little John cuts the engine.
Bertok, who gets an itch in the middle of his back whenever he’s nervous and who’s entirely too muscle-bound to get near the itch, tries to scratch it with the tip of his machete.
Cap gives me the help Bertok out, he’s liable to butcher himself with that machete look, so I scratch the itch. Bertok moans lightly, remembers the command for silence was given ten minutes ago, and tries to blend the moan into something aquatic, a porpoise call is my guess. Cap gives him an approving nod.
Little John steers us toward the yacht. Daeng pulls his balaclava tight and passionately strokes the shaft of his AK-47. His glass eye shimmers in the Mediterranean night sky: he enjoys this way too much.
The yacht we are approaching, The Good Life, is dark; they’re asleep, whoever they are. It’s what people mean by clockwork, I suppose, the way we all know our parts. Bertok hooks the steel ladder to their starboard bow and Daeng slings back his automatic and goes first, his little frame scampering like a woolly bug.
Once aboard, he does a series of Hollywood somersaults and back-flips, producing a pair of Colt 45’s which he points in all directions. My weapon of choice is a solid birch rolling pin, an agile yet not too deadly companion who’s gotten me out of some hairy situations in addition to rolling out delicate, buttery pie crusts. Daeng does his seagull call, which means all clear and Cap, Bertok, and I climb aboard. Little John waits with the boat. He’s too goodhearted and utterly not fearsome. Also, his the patrol boat is coming hoot is a perfect mimic of a sperm whale song. It’s uncanny.
Below deck, we split into two groups. I’m stuck with Daeng, who keeps asking, “Time?” and then answering it himself: “Ninety seconds!” “A hundred twenty seconds!” At the bedroom door, he pauses and gives me an elaborate sequence of hand signals. They could mean anything, but I think they say, I’ll riddle them with bullets and you thrash the corpses with your rolling pin. I respond with my high school baseball coach’s signs: steal second base, slide, the suicide squeeze.
He shakes his head at my lack of professional brutality, kicks down the door and does another of those somersaults into the room. I step over the discarded door, annoyed that it was probably unlocked anyway, but as Cap is always reminding us, it’s chiefly Daeng’s showmanship that makes him a successful pirate.
I flip a light switch and Daeng shouts, “Who wants to fucking die?”
The middle-aged couple in the enormous canopy bed look a lot like I’d look if I was woken up by a hairy Indonesian maniac in a black mask pointing an AK-47 at me and asking if I wanted to die.
“Nobody’s going to die,” I say, pointing to my rolling pin.
“No way,” he says. “Last time nobody died and it was bullshit!”
He raises a bushy eyebrow and pumps his hips toward the woman.
“No,” I say. “Absolutely not.”
We march them onto the main deck where Bertok is duct-taping the hands and feet of two men and two women, all of them tan, grey-haired, and sporting crisp silk pajamas. Bertok is a virtuoso with duct tape and a machete and it’s a shame they’re too afraid to enjoy his handiwork. When all six are bound, Cap steps forward.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Captain Arthur Trilling.” He walks behind them and shakes their bound hands. Cap is decked out in his usual working attire: black linen pants, black leather sandals, a royal blue button down shirt, and a burgundy ascot. His jet black hair is peppered with white, as is his perfectly trimmed beard. He’s an immaculate guy: gives himself manicures, pedicures, under-eye treatments, salt scrubs. He sighs mournfully to illustrate the weight of his coming speech.
“Piracy,” he begins.
He gives the whole shpiel. It’s important to Cap that people understand the historical context behind us stealing all their stuff—that, for instance, simply by owning a yacht, they’re challenging the underprivileged to just try and take away their wealth. Cap’s grandfather was an actor who achieved some measure of fame as a pirate in the silent films, and his father ran a Caribbean-themed eatery in West Covina. Cap’s great grandfather, however, was the real deal: a pirate who successfully plagued four of the seven seas.
As always, Cap brings up Blackbeard, his idol. He talks about how Blackbeard’s biggest weapon was the ability to cause fear: how he’d stick slow-burning matches among his whiskers and behind his ears in order to appear ablaze with power.
“Fear,” Cap says, “is far stronger than all the muscles on this man here.” He points to Bertok, who shrugs, clearly not in agreement.
“I’d wreck Blackbeard,” Bertok says. “Everybody knows that.” The six, bound and lined up as though awaiting execution, try to smile encouragingly.
Cap is interested in timelessness. His greatest pleasure comes from imagining the time, well after his death, when people will speak of him with the sort of reverence associated with other genius/villains, such as Blackbeard or Billy the Kid. He believes in a perfect act of piracy, a flawless performance in which the five of us and our “customers” (Cap’s word) would know exactly where to move and what to say, in which there’d be a progressive sense of movement, the entire experience adding up to more than the sum of its parts (in the same way the five of us together are greater than any of us could have been on our own).
He thinks he’s helping people: the terror they’re subjected to will ultimately help them reassess the value of their lives. In the perfect heist, they’d have this epiphany while the heist was happening.
While Cap’s in instructional mode and Daeng is off with his burlap sack collecting the goodies, I head to the galley. I’m pleased to discover that somebody aboard this boat fancies himself a chef. Obviously whoever it is is a hack; I can tell by their knives—Sabatier, so ridiculously overpriced—also they have mild olive oil and store-bought curry powder. There are, however, some indications of decency: eight tins of Sevruga caviar, a huge cut of perfectly marbled tenderloin, three bottles of decent cognac, a spice grinder, two cases of adequate Burgundy, some black truffle oil, and a nice-sized hunk of fresh ricotta salata.
I hump the supplies back on deck where Daeng is waiting and Cap is finishing up. “You are fine people,” he says, “sexy, yet classy, and will most likely be rescued sometime tomorrow afternoon. Nevertheless, I’ll be leaving you with a dozen bottles of water because dehydration is a sucker’s way of killing.”
To Cap, there are distinctly right and wrong ways to conduct a “nautical intervention.” It is this unbending adherence to pirating principles which he believes will lead to his future legend.
I respect Cap’s ideals, but for me, pirating is just a way to finance my restaurant. Three years ago, when Cap found me, I was working at a little bistro in Crete for a prick of a head chef who took credit for my recipes. Never again. So far, I’ve saved about ninety thousand dollars, and jewelry worth about fifty thousand. I figure I’ll need two hundred and fifty thousand to fund the whole thing.
Cap continues, “I’ve shared something of myself, I think, in these minutes. You’ve seen the type of pirate I am, and as a final request I’d ask that each of you suggest a nickname for me: something which could capture the essence of who I am and help me counteract the short memory of Time in the way “Blackbeard” did for its host, Edward Drummond.”
“I don’t understand,” says a man in tan silk pajamas.
“Please, just leave us alone,” another says.
“Kind people,” Cap continues, “delight in your fear. Give it a little squeeze. Imagine this time as an extraordinary memory, because it soon will be. Enjoy us! I’m Cap—but I believe there must be a better name out there. This is Bertok. Have you ever seen anyone wider than Bertok? Think about the fine story you’ll tell about this someday.”
“Don’t kill us,” says one of the women.
Cap keeps trying to explain how all he wants is a good nickname, but these people are too afraid to understand anything. They snivel and Cap insists they have nothing to snivel about: this is the greatest night of their ho-hum lives, but all his insisting works them up even more and soon one of them, a balding, droopy-eyed man, is in hysterics. Cap gives Daeng a nod and the guy is (mercifully) knocked out by the butt of Daeng’s AK-47.
And then his wife is in tears, and Daeng is cursing her for being unappreciative.
“I’m sorry, everyone,” Cap says, and he is. He’s a peculiar guy, but also utterly sincere and very weepy. “I’ve tried my best tonight to steal everything you have except your dignity, but I can see I’ve failed you.”
Bertok places an arm around a dejected Cap and leads him back to the ladder.
“Nice one,” I say to the crying woman, but of course she’s just afraid—didn’t mean to upset Cap. Daeng, though, takes out his glass eye and sits directly in front of her, says to look into his skull for forgiveness—he’s forever insisting that there’s wisdom to be found within the socket—but she doesn’t find anything except more fodder for wailing.
And we’re out of there.