Paradise Park by Allegra Goodman
Paradise Park: A Novel
by Allegra Goodman
Dell. 432 pp. $24.95
The characters populating Allegra Goodman’s fiction have been, almost exclusively, hyper-articulate academics or hyper-serious Jews—weighed down, confused, and made rather grand by the knowledge they possess. Writing with an elegance and experience that have belied her shockingly young age (she published her first story, in COMMENTARY, at seventeen and is now all of thirty-three), Goodman has offered equally full-blooded portraits of aged Shavian scholars and young Orthodox women straining against the demands of their increasingly observant communities.
Which makes the turn she has taken in Paradise Park, her second novel, all the more fascinating and unexpected. This is an unabashedly comic, first-person account of the life and adventures of one Sharon Spiegelman, hippie folk dancer and seeker of the Divine Spark. The book is a bravura performance, the fictional autobiography of a female Candide on a lifelong quest for enlightenment in an age when enlightenment is particularly difficult to come by.
Sharon is twenty years old when we first encounter her, abandoned in a Honolulu hotel room in the mid-1970′s by the politically activist boyfriend she has followed from Boston to Hawaii. When the novel ends, she is forty-one, and back in Boston in her folk-dancing circle like an old-timer returning to the ballpark long after retirement. Along the way, we learn about her remarkable and peripatetic life. From that hotel room she moves to an uninhabited island as part of a team studying an endangered species of bird; to the island of Molokai to farm marijuana; to a Baptist church where she briefly accepts Jesus as her savior; to a Buddhist monastery in a suburban neighborhood on Oahu; to a religious community in the Mea Shearim section of Jerusalem. Always she returns to Honolulu, where she subsists by working in various tourist shops, makes an abortive effort at studying in the university, teaches folk dancing at a Reform temple to a group of cheerful but sadly uncoordinated elderly ladies, and suffers through unsatisfying relationships with various men—all the while living in small, smelly rooms in diverse communes and academic group houses.
Finally, Sharon falls in with a young couple who arrange for her to spend a summer at a Hasidic girls’ school in Bellevue, Washington. When the summer ends, she follows one of her fellow students back to Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where she embraces life among the Bialystoker Hasidim and finally meets a Russian-born pianist who seems like her bashert—her intended, predestined one—were it not for the awkward fact that his mother was not born Jewish.
Paradise Park is a study in the hunger for faith and community that lurks within those too sadly self-involved to surrender themselves to the demands of religious practice or the restrictive standards all communities impose on their members. Sharon lives an extraordinary existence, but the gorgeous and haunting things she experiences never really penetrate the hard shell of her self-absorption. She shares most of her deepest longings with animals—a dolphin at the theme park where she briefly works, a stray cat she takes in who later gets feline AIDS—misinterpreting their inability to speak as a capacity to empathize.
“I really wish I could say I heard a still, small voice,” Sharon tells us at the beginning of Paradise Park as she ponders her disastrous situation: bereft, alone and broke in Hawaii, unable to turn either to her crazy alcoholic mother or her miserly, distant father back in New England. “But nope. My voice inside of me was more of what I would describe as enraged and terrified yet squeaky, but it kept on talking till I couldn’t help listening, and it kept saying—it’s not fair!”
Goodman triumphs especially in rendering this foolish, yearning, inarticulate, uneducated, deluded, and yet delicate and heartfelt voice of Sharon’s. Here she is in an evangelical Christian church, watching others accept Jesus into their hearts:
“Come home,” Pastor McClaren said, “Come home. . . .” And there was this feeling in me—this unbelievable longing that made me want to go up there and kneel down and accept Jesus too—but I was afraid, and I did not. I just stood there where I was, I watched everyone and my eyes were full of tears, because it was right, what our pastor said; it was true. It was the most true comment on my own issues that I’d ever heard.
Sharon’s sojourn among Christians and Buddhists is relatively short-lived. Though Judaism offends her universalist sensibilities, and though the sum total of her knowledge of her faith and her people is derived entirely from Israeli folk dancing, her Pilgrim’s Progress does eventually take her from the Reform temple in Honolulu (on the rabbi’s car, the license plate reads “Shaloha”) into the embrace of the vital sect of Bialystoker Hasidim. When she meets her young Russian, who believes he has received a portent that the two of them are meant to be together, she seeks out the sect’s wonder-working rebbe, to whom she confides, “He’s had a sign from God, but yet, I have doubts, since I barely know him, for one thing, which is customary in the community, I understand. . . . To me the whole relationship seems like it’s moving way too fast. . . . Should I marry him?” To which the rabbi, exerting all the mystical power at his command, replies by handing her a shiny penny and saying, “Nu, freg dayne eltern”—ask your parents.
If, in passages like these, Sharon can seem a pale distaff version of Tolstoy’s Levin in Anna Karenina, hungering for God, two novels more closely resembling Paradise Park are Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al and Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—those rollicking comedies of the early 20th century in which inarticulate characters tell their stories unaware that they are the butts of the joke. Like the baseball pitcher in You Know Me Al and the gold-digger in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Sharon Spiegelman is what literary critics call an “unreliable narrator”; the true meaning of her story is unknown to her.
The comparison with Lardner and Loos points, as well, to the glaring weakness of Paradise Park. Their books are very, very short, about 150 pages, while Goodman takes 360 pages to tell Sharon’s story. As a writer, Goodman is too honest to let Sharon grow very much in the course of the novel, but it is tiresome to spend so much time in the company of a raging egotist, and the result is that, like Sharon herself, Paradise Park overstays its welcome. By the time we arrive at the ending, in which Sharon finally finds her modest place in the world, we have lost patience; we wish her well, but are glad to be rid of her.
That is far from true of her author, however. Allegra Goodman’s willingness to experiment with new voices, and new ways of telling her brilliantly conceived stories of Jews in conflict with modernity, only makes us hungry for more.