Allegra Goodman's second novel, Paradise Park, is a cross between
a Spanish picaresque novel and an Augustinian spiritual quest. It follows
Sharon Spiegelman, a 1970s flower-child orphan, over a seventeen-year
search for meaning. As the book opens, Sharon wakes in a "fleabag in
Waikiki," flooded in light, and feels the loneliness of being an insignificant
particle against the enormity of God. A twenty-year-old Boston University
dropout, Sharon goes west with her folk-dancing partner Gary, a 35-year-old
grad student with beautiful arches and a more-profound-than-thou attitude,
to pursue his causes. Already in Oregon, things looked bleak: while
Gary goes door-to-door for the Sierra Club, Sharon works as a hotel
maid. When Gary deems Oregon and then Berkeley to be insufficiently
cause-infused, and Honolulu to be insufficiently paradisiacal, he skips
on the hotel bill to run off with a rich German woman to Fiji, leaving
Sharon too broke to contemplate her vision of the divine.
Over the years, Sharon wanders from one dead-end life to another in
a bumbling quest for God. Her loopy, funny voice is a dead-on mix of
desire and ignorance. She volunteers as an unpaid intern on a migratory
bird research expedition, expecting a co-author credit on the article
the professors will publish. With her next boyfriend, a Christian Hawaiian,
she catches cockroaches in a junkyard to be sold for electroplating.
After Kekui's family excommunicates him for seeing her, they grow pot
for a year in a government-owned jungle. A decade of menial jobs ensues:
Sharon works as a temp secretary, a cashier at a Hawaiian fast-food
restaurant called Mambo Zippy's, a practice patient for medical students,
a clerk in a jewelry store run by a couple of born-agains; her dream-job
is a "very hard-to-get" position as a waitress in a bakery. From her
jungle shack she moves to a termite infested cell in the YMCA and from
there to the couch of a women's studies professor, whose girlfriend
accuses Sharon of driving a wedge between her and their cat. There is
the filthy, decrepit house of drug dealers Baron—a depressed ex-football
player—and T-Bone—"a comer" who is "into the bodybuilding
scene." And four months in a silent monastery. In the hilarious opening
scene at the co-op house where she spends seven years, we are treated
to a three-ballot house meeting about whether Sharon can bring her cat.
Sharon questions whether it is consistent for her biologist-roommates
to support animal rights while discriminating against certain types
In typical picaresque style, Goodman builds a broad depiction of society
by pitting her heroine against a vast succession of people and institutions.
She renders a perfect-pitch portrait of the lost generation of 1970s
hippies, both the zealous, earnest grandiosity with which they intended
to remake the world and the aimless desolation induced by repudiating
one set of conventional ties after another. Goodman satirizes the naïveté
and narcissism of that era's utopianism with enormous wit. Sharon has
multiple epiphanies, all recounted with lots of exclamation points.
While she is studying religion, Gary writes to say he is in Jerusalem,
reading ancient texts and finding "the key." Sharon writes back, "I
believe in symmetries in the universe. Correspondences!"
The funniest parts of this very funny book are Goodman skewering the
pettiness and reductionism of so much of human spiritual searching.
The Hawaiian Christian family of Sharon's boyfriend spends four hours
in church each Sunday humming hymns together, then icily dismiss her
as a haole (white) colonial usurper out to destroy their world
and son. At the natural foods store where she goes to work in order
to clean up her diet and mind, her boss is a "semiprofessional surfer
chick named Kim." The monk who leads her in Dzogchen meditation
is a tight-ass former lawyer who barks at her to stop interrupting his
lectures with questions; the rituals of starvation and silence leave
Sharon hungry for food and conversation. She returns to university to
study religion under a professor who announces that his course is not
about the contemporary relevance of religious ideas: texts are not about
us, he explains, but about themselves. He utterly fails to engage his
student's burning questions, repeating only, "This. Is not. A research
paper." Fleeing academia, Sharon makes a mid-semester pilgrimage to
Jerusalem; instead of giving her "the key," Gary sticks her in an intensive
course on Jewish laws with a professor who is "about two hundred years
old" and teaches dietary restrictions like a Nazi. ("Milch," she
says, hacking the air in half with a karate chop. "Fleish.")
Back in Hawaii, a chance meeting with a rabbi leads her to a synagogue,
where she is invited to reconnect with her joy by teaching Israeli folk
dancing; after six years, she is performing with a bunch of overweight
ladies who have not absorbed the simplest steps.
The novel's central metaphor is Paradise Park, a bird park where one
ill-suited boyfriend, a violent marine who calls Sharon "his lady and
his princess," takes her. Sharon, who has spent a summer observing real
birds on a remote archipelago, is disgusted watching these captives
soar up into their forest canopy, only to hit the wire mesh cage. While
everyone is clapping hard for "the African gray's rendition of 'Yellow
Bird,'" she walks out. Though the birds live in harmony, all their basic
needs taken care of, Sharon wonders whether a true utopia can have its
structure imposed from the outside. "A real paradise," she says, "that
would have to come from inside the birds themselves; that would come
from their own hearts." As she flies here and there, Sharon is frustrated
by an inevitable human dilemma: we seek paradise and freedom, only to
find ourselves entangled by the controlling formal systems all utopias
Over seventeen years, Sharon's soarings come to collide less with the
confines of human-made religion and more with the cage of her own ignorance.
Sharon is the epitome of those 1970s idealists who refused to understand
that the real world's consistent failure to respond properly is not
the world's fault, but rather a result of an unwillingness to learn
the skills required to make it respond. Goodman's irony in dealing with
the narrator's ignorance is masterful. Sharon is angry and bewildered
when a plea for money to her father, replete with fabricated accomplishments,
inspires no generosity; angry when the ornithologist-professor refuses
to make her a co-author on the research paper about their expedition;
angry when her religion professor refuses to accept a meandering fourteen-page
letter she has written about her mid-semester Jerusalem pilgrimage as
her final research paper. She is so hungry for answers that she latches
onto any hint of God, rather than accepting the need for a sustained
apprenticeship. A true picaresque heroine, Sharon fails again and again,
seeing everyone's faults but her own.
At the same time, a terrible undercurrent of sadness haunts Sharon's
cheery accounts of salvation and disappointment. She has as tragic a
childhood resume as you could ask for: early on, her father leaves and
remarries; at eleven, her only sibling, a beloved older brother, gets
killed drunk driving. When she is thirteen, her alcoholic mother abandons
her in the house they share with no explanation. Sharon goes to live
with her stepmother and father, who lectures her on how hard she has
made his life. At Boston University, she falls into drug-dealing to
make ends meet after her father, a BU dean, refuses to provide her with
enough financial support; when she is caught, he works assiduously to
ensure her expulsion. (His letters refusing assistance are gems of logical
cruelty.) But the traumas that underpin her lost searching are mostly
skimmed over. In the present, Sharon downplays her past and tells cheery
lies about her family, amplifying the subtext of desperation beneath
the breathy affirmations of her latest situational fix.
What begins as a vision of light coalesces into a vision of God in
the form of a surfacing whale. But only at 35, when she meets a twenty-year-old
Bialystoker Hasidic couple who have moved to Hawaii "to bring Yiddishkeit
to Honolulu," does Sharon encounter a structure with which to engage.
Her current dead-end relationship and job in tow, Sharon begins to study.
She grouses at some of the traditions, like separating the men and women
during study, but loves the overflowing Shabbas feasts the couple proffers.
They introduce her to the Tashma, a kabalistic text not about
"cooking utensils" but "spirituality and magic." Goodman telescopes
the next three years of Sharon's growth: still feeling confined by Judaism's
rules and requirements, she is seduced by its poetry and light. While
one part of her is thinking, "Run for your life!" another thinks, "Wait.
Wait, just let me finish this chapter."
This sort of peripatetic Bildungsroman promises a deepening
that Goodman only partially delivers. The author eloquently documents
Sharon's basic lesson, her shift from believing she has a right to succeed
in being a whole, decent, fulfilled person, to the understanding that
such success is a privilege, hard earned by the very few. (Her ironic
name for the band she and her husband form at the conclusion is called
"The Refusniks.") But, perhaps because ridiculing human folly is easier
than depicting the moment where Augustine sits down under a tree and
converts, Sharon's voice never quite grows into that of a mature 38-year-old
woman; the Judaism she embraces looks a bit like the cult that sticks
where others haven't. Still, the wonder of this novel is Goodman's unsparing
depiction of the failings of religion, even as she insists on its power
to move and heal. •
Joyce Hackett's novel, Disturbance of the Inner Ear, will
be published later this year. She reviewed W.
G. Sebald for the Summer 2000 issue of the Review.