Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Good Men

Arnon Grunberg

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Good Men

Title: Good Men
Author: Arnon Grunberg
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 496 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Good Men - US
Good Men - UK
Good Men - Canada
Des bons gars - France
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Open Letter
  • Dutch title: Goede mannen
  • Translated by Sam Garrett

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B+ : strong writing, but the bigger pieces of the story a bit clunky

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
De Groene Amsterdammer . 12/9/2018 Joost de Vries
NRC . 6/9/2018 Thomas de Veen
Wall St. Journal . 19/5/2023 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "En toch, en toch. Hoe kritisch je ook wilt zijn, je kunt niet ontkennen dat je vanaf de eerste bladzijde in handen bent van een hoogst exceptionele schrijver, die volkomen zelfverzekerd dingen durft op te schrijven die bij geen enkele andere schrijver opkomen. Ondanks de onevenwichtigheid laat Grunberg je hardop lachen, en gruwen van ongemak. Je kunt hem niet neutraal lezen, daar is hij simpelweg te goed voor." - Joost de Vries, De Groene Amsterdammer

  • "Grunbergs romans zijn laboratoria van de heersende moraal, die bestudeerd, opgerekt en uitgeprobeerd wordt, vaak geïroniseerd. (...) Die verwikkelingen tonen in een notendop het onderzoeksonderwerp van Goede mannen: het failliet van de man die een ‘goede man’ denkt te zijn. En failliet is de Pool, na de zelfdoding van zijn zoon. Het vreemde is: de roman gaat dan nog vierhonderd bladzijden door. Er begint een nieuw deel, een nieuwe verhaallijn, met een nieuwe spanningsboog, en vanaf dan heb je zo’n beetje iedere honderd bladzijden weer het gevoel in een nieuwe Grunbergnovelle verzeild te raken." - Thomas de Veen, NRC

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       Good Men centers on a Dutch fireman called, by nearly everyone 'the Polack' (to the extent that: "He started forgetting his real name"). In fact, his actual name, Geniek Janowski, is pretty much the only Polish thing about him -- he was born and has always lived in the Netherlands.
       The novel has seven parts, and begins with tragedy -- not the Polack's, but that of a colleague, Beckers, whose terminally ill wife is in hospital, on her deathbed. The Polack wants to go visit her in the hospital, but his wife, kindergarten teacher Wen, makes clear:

"Geniek," she said, "if you go see her today, then I don't want to be your wife anymore."
       His wife, too, rarely uses his name; when she does: "With that name, she was holding him at arm's length". Clearly there is some history with Beckers' wife, though it takes a while for that to be fully revealed. Geniek does go to the hospital to visit her, but the novel then jumps back some ten years -- to the Janowskis' own tragedy -- and it is quite a while before we learn whether or not Wen's was an empty threat.
       The first section closes: "There had been two boys", as the Janowskis' had two sons. Had. The much older one was Borys; when he is in sixth grade, his brother, Jurek, is just a baby. Borys was a quiet, very withdrawn boy with no friends and some issues his parents were at a loss to deal with. At one point, however, Borys; does speak up, expressing an actual wish: "Give me a pony. I'd like to have a pony".
       The Polack goes about trying to fulfil his boy's wish, and does. The pony, Manya, is old, but Borys doesn't want to ride it anyway -- and it seems to be just what he needs. He eagerly visits it whenever he can -- "like a possessed person, each and every day", as Wen says. When the pony is injured, the farmer who had sold it to the Polack advises him to put it down (well, bring it to the butcher), but the boy begs his father not to kill it, and eventually the Polack does engage the services of an expensive vet (who will, successfully, practice acupuncture on the horse).
       And yet, it's all not enough, and the Polack and Wen lose their eldest son. As the Polack later puts it:
Some people say he jumped; I say he tripped. Sometimes, at first, I said he was pushed. We never found a farewell note. But we didn't search through all his things, either. Soon enough we started saying: let's leave it at this. We know enough. In fact, we know too much.
       The death of a child is, of course, an incredible blow. And there's also the damn pony, whose fate the Polack has to decide on as well .....
       The Polack's colleagues are supportive, trying to help. And Beckers' wife reaches out, too, offering both of them comfort. They're not up to it -- but eventually the Polack goes to her and tells her that he has reached the stage where: "I can be comforted. I'm ready". Unsurprisingly, that's the point where things get really messy.
       Beckers' wife, the mother of three children, has her own issues, afraid that she blew it when she did not take an opportunity, many years earlier, before marrying Beckers, and still unable to fully let go:
     "I'm waiting for the Frenchman," she explained, "even though I think he's not coming anymore, but I haven't stopped hoping. I haven't been able to stop hoping. And if he comes, I'll speak English with him, then I'll explain everything to him in English. I'll tell him to be gentle with me."
       Beckers' wife does comfort the Polack, or at least engage with him in a way that he can try to convince himself that he is getting consolation. But, unsurprisingly, Wen is very displeased when she finds out what has been going on. Wen demands he cut off all contact, which he does -- but he soon goes a step further, walking out on his own family and retreating to a monastery, eventually withdrawing into an abandoned chicken coop there.
       It's just a phase, and Wen is waiting for him when he emerges. It's only later, when the book comes full circle and the Polack goes to visit Beckers' dying wife, that it's the final straw for her.
       By that point, Wen has found someone else, and the abandoned Polack decides to look for a love of his own -- and is quick to convince himself that he's found it, after some effort (a dating site; a trip abroad with a whole group of men looking for love). He brings a woman into his home, and gives her time to try to adjust. As always, he tries his best to be a good man -- "I have no desires. My only desire is to a good man. That's my desire. I have no desires", he once told Wen -- but Grunberg is not one for simple, happy endings, battering his protagonist one last time in the novel's dark conclusion.
       Good Men, tightly focused on the Polack, is an odd sort of character-portrait. The Polack finds: "He was the Polack and he was a fireman. That was enough. What more did you have to know about yourself ?". But, of course, that isn't all there's to it, as even if Polack wanted to live this simply, the actions of others, and his interactions with them, complicate matters, and life.
       The Polack is also determined, above all else, to be a 'good man':
He was a good man, a caring man, they could put him to the test, people could, God could, he would remain who he was, a good and caring man. Even if he had to break away from everyone and everything, even if he had to bury himself alive, he was going to remain a good man.
       The Polack is certainly tested, and for a while he does withdraw entirely -- going to the chicken coop is close to burying himself alive -- but he does need other people, seeking, in various ways, comfort and consolation -- but never really getting what he really needs (as his relationship with Beckers' wife makes quite clear).
       The novel feels somewhat disjointed, its seven sections (with one Intermezzo, a letter written by Wen) like stages from a life. The Polack himself lacks real depth -- intentionally, presumably, as it's also one of the difficulties others seem to have with him --, which is interesting in some ways but also weighs the novel down some: 500 pages of such a character is, in some ways, wearing. But it's also part of the point: Good Men is very much a novel about characters -- and especially that main character -- trying, desperately, not to dig to deep, anywhere. As the Polack said about Borys and his death: "We know enough. In fact, we know too much"; despite essentially knowing nothing, he simply doesn't want to know more -- so also, years after his death, burning Borys' notebooks without reading them: "Knowledge wasn't going to help anymore, knowledge had never helped".
       That said, Grunberg is strong enough a writer that the chunks of the novel are consistently compelling -- some of them very much so. Good Men is good and often gripping reading, not tiresome. It's just that the pieces don't quite fit together, feeling as if Grunberg were trying out different approaches and stories, but struggling some to put them together as a cohesive whole; ultimately, Good Men is a whole -- but resembling one of those sculptures where the different main pieces are misproportioned and seem not quite placed right.
       Worthwhile, but not entirely a success.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 May 2023

- Return to top of the page -


Good Men: Reviews: Arnon Grunberg: Other books by Arnon Grunberg under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature at the complete review
  • Other books from Open Letter under review

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Dutch author Arnon Grunberg was born in 1971 and has won numerous literary prizes.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2023 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links

  • Other books from Open Letter under review