Although it's doubtless indefensible stereotyping, if pushed to describe Jewish humour I'd suggest two things; angst and an ability to laugh at that trait. While both this book and last year's opinion dividing, Booker winning The Finkler Question are of course both by Jewish writers so you could argue that there is evidence of the sending up of the trait, both books feature characters suffering tremendous angst but with only limited self awareness of the humour of it within the book. (It's also a lot funnier than Finkler and has more of a story line) That makes for sometimes depressing reading - particularly in the first half of this book. With this book, Baddiel also has a style of some very long sentences which adds to the stodginess of the read, particularly in the first half of the book. You could argue that with a title such as this, it's never going to be a barrel of laughs, but it is undoubtedly heavy going at times in the first half, but picks up impressively in the second part.
Eli Gold is recognized as the "the greatest living writer" - although his claim to this is slipping by by the day as he is on his death bed. He's not a nice character - his attitudes to his five wives and his children are deplorable and he has been bound up in his own "genius". He's a bit like the best and the worst of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Norman Mailer combined. Now dying in hospital in New York, the book explores this event from the perceptive of four people in his life; his eight year old, precocious daughter by his current wife; his first wife watching on the news from an old people's home in England; the angst-ridden son of his third marriage, himself a pale imitation of the author that his father is; and a mysterious fourth character who appears to have a very different motive for seeing Gold snr and who may be linked to Gold's fourth wife who died in a mutual suicide pact with her then-husband, from which Eli survived. (In fact his identity is revealed in the publisher's blurb on the jacket, but I'll let you decide if you want to know this or to let the story unfold as I did).
If you are expecting jokes and quips galore from Baddiel, you will be disappointed. Yes, there are some nice observations and moments of humour, but almost all of these are of the blackest hue possible. It's not a cheery read. Instead, you get an intelligent and thoughtful investigation of aging, beauty, the differences between greatness and celebrity and broken families. When Harvey Gold gets the opportunity to ghost write the autobiography of the latest musical sensation - who has not released any music yet - this contrasts with Eli's fame - as evidenced by the photos in his apartment. Yet it's not straightforward as Eli himself has a particularly vapid fan waiting for news of his health outside the hospital. Baddiel is careful not to give us trite and simplistic situations.
It's not the most original of stories or scenarios. Writing in the voice of a young child can be too cutesy although here it is quite touching. In general, I enjoyed these passages and particularly those written from the perspective of his first wife, Violet, by far the most. Harvey (the son) is just too depressingly angst-ridden and repetitive in the first half of the book to illicit much enjoyment, although he really comes alive in the second half. The mysterious fourth character is, at first at least, a strange distraction and clearly meant to inject some mystery and thriller elements.
From that perspective, it's a difficult book to categorise. The publishers claim it's comedy - but it's more wry and dark than laugh out loud and a thriller - but that's not the focus of the book and is perhaps the least effective aspect, although there was a classic thriller read moment very late on when I had a "oh no, that means x can now happen...." moment. Where it is most effective is as a meditation on ageing and fame. Ultimately I was left saddened that I couldn't go and read some of Eli Gold's books - which suggests that it worked superbly at that deep level.