rev. of Paradise, New York by Eileen Pollack

Issue #78
Spring 1999

Paradise, New York 
A novel by Eileen Pollack. Temple Univ. Press, $27.95 cloth. Reviewed by Fred Leebron.

In her first novel,
Paradise, New York, Eileen Pollack, author of the acclaimed 1991 story collection
The Rabbi in the Attic, deftly evokes the entertaining and complex life of a Catskills hotel, as seen through the eyes of a young Jewish woman coming of age both spiritually and sexually.

Lucy Appelbaum is the third generation of the family who runs the Garden of Eden, a rambling and somewhat shabby hotel located near the town of Paradise, New York. To be sure, it is a quirky hotel, and when Lucy takes charge of it at age nineteen, it becomes quirkier still, filled with a cranky grandmother, out-of-date communists, and a cast of misfits and philosophers from which Pollack has wrought not only a comedy of errors, but also a serious tale about what it means to belong in the modern world.

Lucy’s insights into the politics of sex are priceless and timeless. Eying a middle-aged insurance adjustor who has already seduced her once, she perceives that “like most unmarried men his age he seemed only half-tame, like a squirrel or a fox you’re tempted to pet. And it came to me then that understanding why you had slept with such a man had nothing to do with whether you would give in and sleep with him again. . . . In Jimmy’s mind, pleasure and business were as near to one another as his pockets to his genitals.”

The real stake of the novel does not lie in whether Lucy can save the hotel from its fate of abandonment and destruction, but whether she can save herself from a descent into nihilism and inertia. For her own spiritual growth, she comes to rely on the sage black handyman, Thomas Jefferson, and during the course of the novel, the two dance a wonderfully subtle and at times bitter pas de deux that is both intellectually and sexually seductive. In their on-again, off-again, sometimes romantic friendship, Lucy finds a meaning not only in trying to save the Eden, but in her life as well. “A human being,” Thomas eulogizes near the end of the novel, “doesn’t come ready made. Person has to gather the pieces himself.”

Lucy’s struggle is to gather such pieces: what it means to be a woman, what it means to be Jewish, and what it means to try to transcend her sense of the limitations of both of these elements of her humanity. A Holocaust historian at the hotel to interview a few survivors chides one of them who will not talk, asking, “But who will tell your story after you’re gone?”

“Story?” the survivor repeats. “What I have lived through is not a story.”

Paradise, New York is indeed the story of Lucy’s coming of age in the detritus of the late 1970’s Catskill resort industry, it is more than that, a tragicomic journey out of a world that cannot keep her and into a world that will not have her. Despite its lapses into glib comedy and explicit philosophizing, it is an ambitious and fully realized novel.

Fred Leebron is author of the novel Out West
and co-editor of  Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology.
His new novel, Six Figures,
is forthcoming from Knopf in January 2000.