Because I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad, I went straight to my library to find Jennifer Egan’s earlier works. The Keep, published in 2006, is another example of how brilliant she is with flawed and sometimes unlikable characters. As I wrote in my review of Goon Squad, we can still love and root for unlikable characters if the author treats them with compassion and makes us empathize with them. This is a tricky tightrope. Jonathan Franzen, in my opinion, failed at that in Freedom. He built a universe of flawed characters, but his judgment of them was palpable. Not so with The Keep, where Egan’s compassion shines through.
The story begins when Danny, the “cool” kid whose adulthood has left him wanting, is reunited with his socially backward, nebbishy cousin, Howie, after twenty years. The last time Danny saw Howie was at a family picnic, where Danny and some other kids had abandoned Howie in a deep, frightening cave. Now cool, tanned, blond, and a millionaire, Howie has purchased a castle in Germany and invites Danny to help him renovate it.
To give away any more of the plot would spoil a tale with some well-done twists and turns. The Keep is a fascinatingly circular story, tantalizingly creepy, and plays out like a snake, winding around to bite its own tail. The point of view characters are definitely flawed, absolutely well drawn, and I had complete empathy for them.
This is another example of Egan’s gleeful rule breaking and terrific writing. For aspiring authors, it’s a great teaching tool, as is Goon Squad.
I’m looking forward to finding the rest of her work.