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 use it to mean merely “detailed.” Mr. Goodman’s beds are always becoming couches. But his therapeutic sectarianism has its imaginative virtues, and Making Do is informed by some of the best qualities of Mr. Goodman’s nonfiction. He is a beautiful lyricist of motives, with an acute ear for the way in which people phrase their behavior. Time and again his hatred for the gestures of the beat and the know-nothing melts into an almost tearful flood of sympathy for the hurts that those gestures so ineffectually guard.
Mr. Goodman’s sympathies, and those of his tired man, can even extend to The Enemy; there is a splendid scene, for example, in which three members of the community attempt to win a concession from the frightened, narrow, almost mindless mayor of Vanderzee, whose electioneering sound-trucks have been blaring “blah blah blah” throughout the book in a hideous assault on privacy and peace. And yet one is made to feel sorrier for him than for his antagonists. In moments like this Mr. Goodman is at his most effective. What is so frequently disappointing about his novel is the way in which he will often attempt to force a reader’s reaction by rhetoric when he has already achieved it by the writing of the scene itself. For example, there is a ball game that Terry has organized among a group of children in a street outside a theater, a moment of order and joy in the lives of all the players, and the kind of event that, for Mr. Goodman’s apocalyptic anarchism, explodes into good faith. It is one of the most memorable scenes in the book, and yet the author almost ruins it for us by pushing too hard:
The players were of assorted sizes and colors and they stretched in a thin line in front of the bleak bricken wall that had never before been put to any use. By the cosmos of their wills and passions they made the constellations in heaven turn otherwise, and they stayed, in so far, the breaking out of nuclear war.
The contrast between these two sentences represents, I think, the difference between Mr. Goodman’s success and failure as a novelist. The linguistic extravagance of “bricken” is redeemed by the simplicity and honesty of the vision it helps conjure up. But the rhetorical over-reaching of the second sentence is a shame, and reminds one of those unfortunate moments in Growing Up Absurd when the author assures us that he was weeping at the sight of something or other.
Making Do is an odd novel but by no means an unreadable one. It has all of the virtues and defects of the act of writing that is itself therapeutic and self-critical for the author, and the shift of narrative emphasis toward and away from the central character reflects perhaps more indecision than dialectical control. Its insights, cutting through all the various clichés of contemporary social protest, are embodied in reflective moments and aphorisms throughout the book. “Ramon was dangerous to us, I saw, as if clairvoyantly, that he was going to do us great harm. But of course there is nothing to do with such clairvoyant visions not in the ordinary course of nature.” Such an observation calls into question the validity of fiction itself. If Making Do seems a novelistic failure it is certainly in good part because only the greatest of novels can bear the weight of so much wisdom and honesty without cracking at the seams.