Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Ghosts of Diversity: Three New Novels

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Ghosts of Diversity: Three New Novels

Article excerpt

Paradise, New York. By Eileen Pollack. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998. Pp. 251. $27.95.

Brand New Memory. By Elias Miguel Munoz. Houston: Arte Pub

lico Press, 1998. Pp. 232. $12.95 pb.

Selene of the Spirits. By Melissa Pritchard. Princeton: Ontario Review Press, 1998. Pp. 217. $22.

At one point in Eileen Pollack's novel, Paradise, New York, there is a Jewish wedding. Alas for the Jewish parents of the narrator, their son has chosen to marry a Quaker. When the mother brings up to the bride the question of whether a future grandchild will be Jewish, she is assured that any child will receive "a spiritual upbringing." `Jewish spiritual?" the mother retorts. "Or Christian?" The son tries to intervene: "Human spiritual." But the mother will not be deterred: "Funny, when people say `human,' they never seem to mean Jewish."'

What do we mean when we speak in the name of the human? Do we have to utter our words out of a specific religious or national history? Are the most vital sources of identity possible in the United States today driven by identity politics and ethnic specificity, or by something else? Each of these three accomplished new novels is vitally concerned with the claims of cultural diversity as they press against the continuities of specific origins that resist diversity. Or perhaps better, each of these novels is concerned that such continuities are becoming either eroded or unlocatable. If so, what do we have left? To put the matter very pointedly: what is living and what is dead in the possibilities life affords us-not so much as individuals but as members of some wider and more embracing human community?

In Pollack's narrative, the matter of where a vital identity can be located is simply predicated: we can remain where we are, in paradise. Paradise, New York, is the address of a hotel in the Catskills, the Garden of Eden, owned by the family of the narrator, Lucy Applebaum. The novel begins late in the 1970s, with the Eden surrounded by the ghosts of former hotels (now retreats for Zen Buddhists or rehabilitation centers for drug addicts) and about to be sold to a Hasidic Jew. Lucy's grandmother is still alive, living in the Eden and resisting change. Lucy's parents have become desperate, tired of maintaining the Eden and eager for change. There is also a brother, Arthur, whom we would expect to be a contrast with the fervent Lucy, and he is, pronouncing the Eden a "shit hole" and abandoning it as early as he can. We would also expect Lucy-who can't stay away, not even when she goes to college-to recall when times were more appropriately Edenic, and she does. The strength of Paradise, New York is not in its plot, which tends to be episodic (Pollack has published a volume of short stories), but in its prose, which is consistenly stylish, alert, attentive. "Like most children," Lucy remarks early on, "I equated attention with love. But my brother thought the highest form of attention a brother could bestow was relentless correction." There is a tenderly imagined initial scene where Lucy rescues a boy from the pool and there are many sharp lyric insights, such as the following, after a sixteen year-old Lucy, during a conversation with Thomas Jef ferson, the Eden's black, bookish, blunt handyman, suddenly realizes something of his disappointment with his life: "His anger squeezed out of my breath, and I turned away abruptly, which broke the connection between us as effectively as if I had yanked out some wire linking my heart to his."

In many ways, the plot of the novel consists of the restoration of this linkage, and, more importantly, the establishment of why it matters so much in the first place. Of course much else happens. The Hasid turns out to be a con man. Arthur introduces Lucy to some genuine Hasidic Jews in New York who speak rich Yiddish and prompt her to fret about her spiritual depth. "My Judaism was no more than nostalgia, a warm toasty marshmallow stuck in my throat. …

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