Meeting Allegra Goodman in person is a bit disconcerting. How can this vivacious and unpretentious young woman have accomplished so much so soon? Although Kaaterskill Falls, (Dial), is her first novel, Goodman published her first short story as a freshman at Harvard and her first collection, Total Immersion (Harper &Row, 1989), the year she graduated. She received a $30,000 Whiting Foundation Writer's Award in 1991 and published her second book, the celebrated novel-like collection of stories, The Family Markowitz (FSG, 1996), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, at the ripe age of 29. Not to mention the fact that Goodman and her husband, David, a computer science professor at MIT, are happily raising two young boys (Ezra, six, and Gabriel, two and a half) -- and that she received her doctorate in English Literature from Stanford in 1997. If you happened to hear a faint groan on June 26, 1997, it was probably the collective exhalation of the members of Goodman's generation reading that morning's New York Times, which contained a glowing profile of the young phenom. This is the kind of article one wants to hide from one's own parents -- who would probably be satisfied with simply one grandchild, one book, perhaps a master's degree.
The final straw was the reporter's observation that Goodman's home was "completely tidy." So PW is relieved to discover that the family living room in Cambridge, Mass., a year later, appears to have been struck by natural disaster. "How'd you weather the flood?" she asks cheerfully as she fetches a glass of juice, gesturing toward an array of damp mass market paperbacks splayed out to dry in front of the fireplace. As we settle in to chat, Goodman curls up on the couch and explains that David's science-fiction collection -- along with a few hardback copies of The Family Markowitz -- was soaked in the basement by the recent rain storms. In the author's presence, the sadly bedraggled volumes -- carefully arranged in the hopes of possible recovery -- strike the eye like a detail from her fiction. Chronicling a group of characters whose lives overlap at a summer community in the Catskills in the late 1970s, Kaaterskill Falls concludes with a generational struggle over an inheritance of treasured books, an irreplaceable collection of theology, literature, history and philosophy. And Goodman's earlier fiction also treats the lives of characters deeply immersed in the written word: with titles like "Variant Text," "Onionskin" and "Oral History," her stories find a rich source of plot and metaphor in the acts of writing and reading.
It's easy to picture Goodman as the grad student she recently was, enthusiastically hashing out some critical problem around the seminar table -- except that the topic of discussion now is her own fiction. Her green eyes radiate pleasure as she expresses confidence that the claims of popular, entertaining fiction and fine literature can be met simultaneously. "I think ultimately the most satisfying entertainment is the most intellectually engaging. It has to be done well, but I do think people respond to it. Some people bemoan the state of literary fiction today, but I think readers know good stuff when they see it." She cites a few favorite contemporary authors: Cynthia Ozick, Rebecca Goldstein, Gish Jen, Elizabeth McCracken. "I'm confident that ultimately people will go for the rich stuff rather than the thin, flimsy stuff." She laughs and draws an analogy between the pleasures of reading and eating: "My feeling has always been that people are going to eat Milk Duds, but they're also going to yearn for those rich, creamy, handmade truffles -- and they're going to buy them."
The metaphor, although it may risk immodesty, seems altogether apt for Kaaterskill Falls, an ambitious, multi-layered, yet very accessible novel that she began writing and painstakingly revising a decade ago, even before starting the stories that went on to comprise The Family Markowitz. Goodman's enthusiasm for her own fiction is all of a piece with her passion for the written word generally, a passion that she traces to her childhood in a small conservative Jewish community in Honolulu. She observes that her mother, a geneticist, and her father, a philosophy professor (both taught at the University of Hawaii), "took me seriously. They encouraged me, they read my work. That's a tremendous gift that not every kid gets. And they listened. I would read my work aloud to my family. They were my little writer's group."
At 17, she wrote "Variant Text," which she sent to the Jewish intellectual journal Commentary the summer after graduating from high school and saw into print by the end of her first year at Harvard. Encouraged by Marion Magid, the magazine's managing editor at the time, Goodman continued publishing fiction in Commentary throughout college. "When she first sent me a letter beginning 'Dear Ms. Goodman,'" she recalls, "I thought, 'Does she know how old I am?' " The editor very likely did not. After all, how many 17-year-olds could so convincingly write about a self-involved Shaw scholar living in a sprawling, poorly heated Victorian house in Oxford, England, with his wife's parents for the sake of convenient grandparental baby-sitting; about a series of minor doctrinal disputes in the local shul; and, most startlingly, about the genial disarray of domestic life as conducted by distracted intellectuals? This didn't sound like the work of teenager.
Impressed by the fiction in Commentary, agent Irene Skolnick contacted Goodman when she was a junior in college and, says Goodman, "quickly sold" Total Immersion to Ted Solotaroff at Harper &Row. (The collection, containing several new stories, will be reissued in paperback this year by Delta.) In 1991, Goodman published her first story in the New Yorker, the magazine that these days seems to trade off with Commentary for the rights to her fiction. Goodman remarks on her good fortune in editors, raving about Robert Gottlieb, Chip McGrath and now Roger Angell at the New Yorker, and about Jonathan Galassi, who edited The Family Markowitz at FSG. "I feel like I've had the last of the old-fashioned editors. They don't make 'em like this any more," she says.
Kaaterskill Falls, which Goodman had been rewriting all that time, was edited by Susan Kamil at Dial. (On leaving FSG for Dial, Goodman comments only, "It was just one of those things; it didn't work out with FSG.") Kamil, Goodman says, "must have read this manuscript five, six, maybe seven times. She wrote on every single page all over in pencil -- and she did that twice. She cared so deeply for this book and the characters in it. She would talk about them as if they were real people, which is how I feel about it -- but you don't expect other people to feel the same way."
A Universe of Characters
From the outset, Goodman's voice was astonishingly confident, mature and witty -- and as it turned out, she had in that first published story, "Variant Text," already staked out her own fictional terrain: several characters from the story reappear in later work. In her three books to date, Goodman has created a little universe of family members and neighbors linked by affection, guilt, obligation and necessity. Having gotten to know the Jewish matriarch Rose Markowitz from the point of view of an exasperated anthropology grad student interviewing her for an oral history project in "Oral History," for example, a reader can turn to "Fannie Mae" (both in The Family Markowitz) for a story immersed in Rose's own perspective. In the tradition of authors from Balzac to Faulkner, Goodman creates the effect of a fully developed alternate world, in which her characters move from story to story like familiar acquaintances.
In Kaaterskill Falls, Goodman turns the Catskills, circa 1977, into a place of beauty, conflict and moral complexity. To the Hawaiian-raised Goodman, upstate New York seemed a kind of enchanted fairy land, alluringly strange: "My mother's family had a summer house in the Catskills, and when I was a kid I used to spend summers there. It's very vivid in my mind, because it was so exotic to me as a kid! If your context is Hawaii, to come to this mountainous place with huge trees, dark forests, cold mornings in summer, the chill in the evening, was amazing. All of that made a tremendous impression on me. Since there were no Jewish schools or anything in Honolulu, Jewish life on the mainland, and in New York in particular, fascinated me. I was looking at it carefully from this other place."
The stories in Total Immersion and The Family Markowitz, while not lacking in melancholy, are also hilariously funny, largely because of Goodman's ear for the pitch and rhythm of domestic conversation. She comments, "I think my work does well when it's read aloud. For me, writing has always been a kind of performance. It's almost like you do these improvisations; sometimes I say the words out loud, try to hear it in my head and almost act it out, move my hands and try to figure out what the appropriate gesture would be. Writing is a solitary process, but when it's going well you don't feel like you're alone, because it becomes real enough for you that all the characters surround you and you hear their voices."
In Kaaterskill Falls, those voices -- despite the novel's location in a summer vacation spot -- speak in more autumnal, sadder tones than those of most of her previous fiction. For example, while the glib, cosmopolitan Shaw scholar from "Variant Text," Cecil Birnbaum, appears in the novel, he soon gives way to characters like Elizabeth Shulman, a loyal member of a devout orthodox congregation in New York City that travels with the Rav Elijah Kirshner every summer to Kaaterskill Falls. "I loved writing Elizabeth's character," Goodman comments, "because she loves literature and art, but she doesn't respond to them as an academic would. She feels it in her heart. The novel has books and learning in it, but it's not a bookish book. These people really take things to heart -- and morally, those are the interesting people to write about."
While the stories of The Family Markowitz can be read as a novel, one could never mistake Kaaterskill Falls for a collection of stories. Indeed, it finds in the relatively insular, self-contained Kirshner community a kind of modern re-creation of the "three or four families in a country village" that Jane Austen famously defined as "the very thing to work on." When Goodman describes the unforgivable moral offense of a family member's late arrival to a Friday evening Shabbat dinner, or the Rav's decision to withdraw permission that had been granted to Elizabeth to sell kosher food to the community, one feels plunged into a lost world of tightly knit community, binding ethical strictures and, most of all, of individualism firmly constrained by allegiance to authority and tradition.
To a contemporary reader, Elizabeth's obedience to what may seem a rigid, arbitrary limit to her self-expression can be painful to read. "I'm interested in the complexity of Elizabeth's situation," Goodman says, "in the way she takes to heart the restrictions on her life. She can't stand outside of her situation in the way that we might, and judge it that way. These rituals are not rituals to her, they're instincts. So she's not going to run away or do something wild. She's going to try to figure out how to express herself within that framework."
Goodman pauses. "If you're drawing this little world, there have to be edges to the world. I saw Elizabeth's perspective, and I felt her hit an edge." Could this have anything to do with the dissertation she was completing -- comparing the aesthetic ideas of Samuel Johnson and John Keats -- as she revised Kaaterskill Falls? Goodman cites Keats's famous phrase: "I guess this is where the negative capability would come in. I'm one of those people who thinks art should be philosophical. For me, it wasn't a matter of judging the situation, it was a matter of creating this moment that would make the reader think, and feel troubled." And leaning forward on the couch to emphasize her point, her face lights up with what might be best described as a philosophical smile.