cover image THE GREAT FAILURE: A Bartender, a Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth

THE GREAT FAILURE: A Bartender, a Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth

Natalie Goldberg, . . Harper San Francisco, $24.95 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-06-073399-5

"Of course, we are drawn to teachers that unconsciously mirror our own psychology," writes Goldberg in a memoir about her wrestling match with her particular devil. In Writing Down the Bones , she coupled writing with the insights of Zen Buddhism, showing writers how to use a stream of consciousness approach to move through blocks and understand their true experience. Here, however, as Goldberg explores the link between her elegant Zen master, Katagiri Roshi, and the gritty, charming bartender father who sexually violated her, she inadvertently demonstrates this approach's shortcoming. Years after his death, Goldberg learned that Katagiri, the teacher who taught her so much (and the subject of Long Quiet Highway ), carried on affairs with female students. Goldberg was shattered; she'd wanted to believe he was an immaculate refuge. Liberation through disillusionment is a universal and durable theme, yet as Goldberg muses and tells stories—splicing in a long Zen tale for a little extra-dimensional oomph—her account closes rather than opens up. In spite of her fluid writing and honesty, the work feels insular and self-cherishing, like personal notes rather than a compelling narrative for the rest of us. Many readers will conclude that this is a not-so-great failure after all, or perhaps a heartache that hasn't really healed. Agent, Geri Thoma. Author tour. (Sept.)