Paul Goodman has become far better known for his prophecies than for his fiction. Some of his brilliant early stories like “The Facts of Life” and “The Break-up of Our Camp” have remained little-known avant-garde classics. Recently, The Empire City drew together some of his more quirky and problematic prose fiction. His new novel is more clearly an aftermath of books like Growing Up Absurd that turned Mr. Goodman into a public figure and, like them, it is by turns terribly moving and exasperating.
Making Do is about a group of people who have contracted out of the megalopolis symbolized by Manhattan, rejecting it both morally and politically, while yet remaining partially involved with it economically. They live in an aspiring utopian subcommunity of their own in a city much like Hoboken across the river from New York, trying desperately to survive their necessary points of contact with the rest of society. The group includes a university teacher, an artist, an industrial technician, and the book’s protagonist, the “tired man,” a writer and lecturer on urban problems like Mr. Goodman himself. Half of the book is narrated in the first person by this unnamed figure (he is the overworked “good man,” tired of his failures yet morally unable to refuse to confront them); the rest is recounted in alternating sections by a disembodied “we,” a quasi-choral voice of the community itself. The effects of these narrative shifts are to maximize and minimize, by turns, the importance to the community of the tired man’s personal successes and disasters. In particular, his attempt to save, from the human waste of psychosis, the intelligence and energy of a disturbed undergraduate named Terry whom he meets at a lecture in the Midwest almost becomes a measure of the achievement of the whole visionary enterprise. It is an enterprise that ends in dissolution, brought on by unavoidable poisonings from across the river, and specifically triggered by the results of importing into the community a group of delinquent Puerto Rican boys.
It is the tired man’s relation to Terry that sets the style for most of the connections between people in Making Do. The older man is at first repelled by the boy’s self-destructive incoherence: In Terry’s talk rhetoric has crowded out substance and he bombards the world about him with unassimilated, half-comprehended fragments of ideology from what are almost coyly called “writers like Mailer and Goodman.” But when Terry leaves college and shows up at Vanderzee, the older man allows himself to be drawn into a complex role, part friend, part teacher, and part lover. His relation to Terry keeps breaking down into unofficial, ad hoc therapy. Mr. Goodman admits that his protagonist’s world is one in which therapy and the rest of life are confused, and it is certainly true that much too much of the sex in this novel is so didactic as to be annoying—one would like to rescue the adjective “clinical” from prudes who …