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Jennifer Egan Brings the Goon Squad to Westchester

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I’m just getting around to reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. Reading it, a huge question popped into my head: What took me so long?

Man, do I think the Pulitzers were on-point with this one. My enjoyment of the book comes from the writing, sure, but it’s enhanced by the fact that Egan touches on some of my favorite subjects. The novel—which is a series of interconnected stories and shifts point-of-view each chapter—is mostly about people’s relationship to music, either personally or professionally. As a pop-culture editor, of course I find that fascinating (and I think she really gets what it is to be a music fan). But, more than that, I’m obsessed with the characters of Stephanie and Bennie because they—of course—live in Westchester.

The hamlet they live in the fictional town of Crandale (not to be confused with Scarsdale, which is referenced elsewhere). Egan explains the characters’ decision to settle in the ‘burbs thusly: “It was Bennie who chose Crandale, and in some deep way Stephanie understood why: they’d flown in private jets to islands owned by rock stars, but this country club was the farthest distance Bennie had traveled from the dark-eyed grandmother in Daly City. He’d sold his record label last year; how better to mark success than by going to a place where you didn’t belong?”

Unfortunately, Egan doesn’t treat the country-club-going residents of Crandale, who give Bennie and Stephanie the initial brush-off, kindly: “They were snobs or idiots or both, Stephanie told herself, yet she was inexplicably crushed by their coldness.”

“I’ve never lived in the suburbs, but I do have a sense of country clubs—first from Rockford, Illinois, my mother’s hometown,” Egan writes on her website. “I think the deep inspiration for ‘A to B’ was really the sensory atmosphere of country clubs: the sound of tennis balls, the smell of the snack bar, the mothers tanning their pregnancy-stretched bellies, the fathers subtly eyeing the teenage girls around the pool.”

Okay, the country clubs, the monochromatic towels at the pool, the SUVs in the parking lot, the chilly receptions in the locker room: I know they all exist here. But my life in Westchester has never really included a country club, so I can’t say these descriptions really spoke to me.

But there was a part that I thought Egan nailed the whole experience of living here. It happens when Bennie takes his son, Chris, to the barber: “Stu walked Bennie over to Chris in the chair and parted his hair to reveal some tan little creatures the size of poppy seeds moving around on his scalp. Bennie felt himself grow faint.
‘Lice’ the barber whispered. ‘They get it at school’.
‘But he goes to private school’ Bernie had blurted. ‘In Crandale, New York!” Yup, that’s local entitlement, all right!

If you want to hear more about Egan’s vision of Westchester, you’re in luck. She’ll actually be in town on June 29 at Manhattanville College. She’s there as a faculty member for the college’s Summer Writers’ Week, and she’ll give an open-to-the-public reading that night. The reading is free, but you have to RSVP to Karen Sirabian, Director of Manhattanville College’s Master of Arts in Writing Program (914-323-5239, sirabiank@mville.edu). Ask some thoughtful questions, and let Egan know we’re not all cold country-club snobs.