When Jonathan Goldstein started his podcast series Heavyweight in 2016, he pitched himself as a solver of problems. Goldstein, a writer and veteran contributor to This American Life, would help people with feuds, regrets, estrangements, grief and other complex interpersonal or psychological obstacles.
Friends, acquaintances and listeners come to him with questions existential and eccentric, while Goldstein, “after a few of my patented hems and trademarked haws”, tracks down long-lost friends and relatives, and offers emotional support and advice, all interspersed with comic personal tangents, like a hesitant, rambling agony aunt, or a “therapist with a time machine”.
Seven years later, the show has been through several series, developed a dedicated listener base, and regularly finds itself in best-of lists. There have been episodes in which Goldstein’s friend Gregor asks the musician Moby to return some borrowed CDs, siblings try to understand why they were separated as children, and a favourite babysitter who suddenly disappeared is tracked down.
Every now and then, Goldstein’s own life becomes the centre of the show, with episodes about his father, his aborted attempts to become a rabbi, and his first love.
The eighth season begins with one such episode: Goldstein seeks out his childhood best friend, Lenny, who he hasn’t seen in more than a decade. As children, Lenny and Jonathan would make tapes together – staging “radio plays” about their parents, or recording a show in which “listeners” “call in” with questions. But after finding Lenny an increasingly bitter adult, Goldstein lost touch with him.
Lenny is now terminally ill, and Goldstein makes contact again. Compelling, empathetic and full of character, the show’s therapeutic qualities and, yes, heavy themes are tempered by Goldstein’s wry cynicism. As ever, it’s a funny, moving and human listen.
[See also: What happens when women’s pain is dismissed]
This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits