Naming Names: Phuoc Goldberg

Blog: What's the Big Idea?

Naming Names: Phuoc Goldberg

Before I knew anything about the hero of the novel that would become Cadaver Blues, I had the thought that there weren’t enough Asian characters in genre fiction. Asian immigrants and Asian culture have a significant and growing influence on American culture, but fiction doesn’t seem quite to have caught up to them yet.

I had the notion that my mystery would fall into the sub-genre of noir, but would be ironic noir. And I knew early that there would be an underlying theme of prejudice, because all noir detectives — perhaps all detectives — perhaps all characters — are the sum of their prejudices. Wouldn’t it be interesting if this Asian hero felt himself victimized by prejudice while indulging in his own snap judgments of people based upon their looks, etc?

But there was a problem. I’m not Asian and I have a passing knowledge at best about Asian culture. Becoming conversant with any specific Asian culture — that of the Vietnamese, say — would require more time than I had. But if I tried to fake it, the book risked wandering off into inauthenticity.

What to do? I decided to make him physically Asian but culturally — and perhaps in most other ways — more like me. In fact, I thought, this would work perfectly for the kind of novel I wanted to write, because the character would be misjudged at a glance all the time. And undoubtedly it would make him angry, give him an edge.

I began poking around for Vietnamese names and came upon Phuoc. Hard to pronounce and, better yet, hard to pronounce without uttering an English profanity. Then he needed a contrasting last name, something to emphasize the hybrid nature of his life. Since I’d decided that he was raised by atheists of Jewish extraction, Goldberg seemed a good fit. (His father was a socialist, leading to more irony, as Goldberg means “gold mountain.”)

Later, once the novel had been largely serialized on The Nervous Breakdown, my agent at the time, Paul Bresnick, stumbled upon an article about a real-life person named Phuoc Goldberg and the struggles with his name. Thus does life imitate art. Anyway, back on the pages of fiction…

Is it a funny name? You bet, because the novel is funny. Meaningful? I believe, having given you the above dissertation, that I can also make that assertion.

Does it work? Read Cadaver Blues and decide for yourself.

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