“Super Goat Man”

Jonathan Lethem
New Yorker online; April 4, 2004.

Review by Barth Anderson

“Super Goat Man,” a short story by Jonathan Lethem, was posted on the New Yorker’s site in April 4, 2004, and it’s both a real delight and a tad disappointing to me. It’s absolutely delightful to see Lethem bringing his freakshow to the New Yorker, where increasingly the fantastical work of A.S. Byatt, Louise Erdrich, and even Stephen King have appeared. But it’s a disappointment to see him narrow his setting to a typical New Yorker venue for fiction.
Here we have a memoir told by Everett, recounting the various intersections of his life with a down-and-out super hero named Super Goat Man. Not the Goat Man who stalked libidinous teenagers parked alongside lonely lakes, but a hack crusader whose villains had names like “False Dave,” and whose comic books were embarrassingly bad, even in the eyes of young Everett. Super Goat Man fell so far he’d been reduced to living in a Brooklyn crash pad and reheating the leftovers of his better days. Man, even his horns are missing.
The tension flowing underneath the memoir is the question of whether or not Super Goat Man cuckolded Everett’s dad, a supposition that sours the young man to the super hero – later in the story, it turns out, Super Goat man has “put the horns” on Everett too. The final scene is drawn with Everett’s wife regarding the final confrontation between Everett and Super Goat Man with a Freudian cigar glowing in Everett’s face like an interrogation light.
All of this takes place in terrain that’s probably comforting to New Yorker readers – the Updikian college campus. Gone are the surreal highways and Chandler-filtered futures of Lethem’s journeyman career, or even the jaundiced-eye he cast on Beauchamp University, the setting of his novel As She Climbed Across the Table. The opening sequence of “Super Goat Man” takes place on a stage lit by Lethem’s last two novels – a working class and/or bohemian Brooklyn – but quickly we shift into the crisp green quadrangles and chilly emotionlessness of academia.
It’s an unfortunate relocation, because the elements really are funny, particularly the running gag of the bland super hero continually popping up in Everett’s life, first in his student days, then later as Everett seeks a job at his alma mater. Many readers will probably dig the irony of a tepid, disaffected super hero on faculty at a big university.
But the irony doesn’t cut. In fact, the story’s focus on Super Goat Man and academia actually drowns out what Lethem sings best: The freak-protagonist in a compelling venue wrestling with high-octane humiliation. As soon as he graduates, Everett becomes a walk-on straight out of collegiate central casting, and we spend an unfortunate amount of text listening to the familiar tune of the migrant academic worker. Where is this character’s unique internal music? By the time we get to what should be the patented Lethemesque face-off with the main character’s own shame, when the grown Everett faces the decrepit Goat Man, it’s just a snotty exchange at a faculty party.
That said, “Super Goat Man” is damn funny, and few living writers of the fantastic sew their magic into the fabric of their fiction as effortlessly as Lethem does. “Super Goat Man" is also successful as a sort of distillation of the filial themes the author visited in The Fortress of Solitude. For those who appreciated his skewed glance at Turgeneyev (I did), this story is a fun reduction of that material.
But for my Lethem dollar, give me Chaos. Give me Lionel Essrog, Henry Farbur of the excellent The Shape We’re In, or even young Dylan from Fortress. Everett is a departure from form that I hope Lethem avoids in the future.

Barth Anderson
10 August 2004

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