Soul-Searching in the Catskills

In a first novel, Allegra Goodman paints a complicated portrait of faith, family and the drama of inner lives.

January/February 1999

Reading time min

Soul-Searching in the Catskills

The world Allegra Goodman brings to life in her delightful and provocative first novel will be utterly unfamiliar to most readers. Set in the late 1970s, Kaaterskill Falls (Dial Press, 1998; $23.95) revolves around a small sect of devout Jews who spend their summers at a resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Perhaps more daring, Goodman, PhD ’97, tells the intertwined stories of three families, populating her novel with dozens of characters. But this complexity never dilutes the narrative, and the very unfamiliarity of the setting serves to emphasize the drama in everyday events taking place beneath the surface of this seemingly homogeneous community.

The religious group at the heart of the novel, known as the Kirshners, are the descendants of a fictional congregation who emigrated to America en masse earlier in the century. For most of the year they live in disparate parts of New York City. Orthodox but not Hasidic, the members of the congregation are not separatists; they live and work in the world. Each summer, they congregate upstate, in Kaaterskill Falls, 100 miles north of the city, to take stock of their lives and their shared faith. Most of the novel’s action takes place during two of these summers.

Goodman, the author of two short story collections, Total Immersion and The Family Markowitz, writes in a careful, reflective style that perfectly matches these long days of contemplation and reassessment. For instance, Elizabeth Shulman, wife of Isaac and mother of five daughters, is a devout believer, yet she feels stifled within the cloistered community and becomes curious about life outside it: “The sacred isn’t mysterious to her, and so she romanticizes the secular. Poetry, universities and paintings fill her with awe.” Throughout the book, she struggles to come to terms with her restlessness. Elizabeth’s fate, like everyone else’s in the sect, is tied to its founder and leader, Rav Elijah Kirshner, who is nearing the end of his life. A German-born intellectual, the Rav is unlike those rabbis “who tie their handkerchiefs to their fingers as they speak of certain things -- thus to keep their ascending spirits tied to the ground. Rav Kirshner’s handkerchief remains folded in his pocket, starched and ironed. He is no mystic. He is a rationalist, interested in law, not myth.” While the Rav embodies a fusion of faith and reason, discussing the Torah and Plato with equal facility, it seems unlikely that his successor will be so adroit. On his deathbed, he is left to choose who will take his place: his younger son, Isaiah, is devout and loyal, yet “uninteresting”; Jeremy, his brilliant older son, flouts religious law and teaches at a secular university.

The Rav’s choice is both central to and emblematic of the novel, which builds drama by exploring the tension between the sacred and the secular, between tradition and change. As the community is due for a reckoning with the passing of the Rav, so are its individual members. Goodman renders this coming realignment by skillfully shifting point of view from character to character, allowing many perspectives to overlap and illuminate each other. For Elizabeth Shulman, what begins as curiosity about the world outside the sect eventually blossoms into discontent. Listening to Isaiah Kirshner speak of the future, she thinks, “His voice is bright and strident, shrill, and he repeats himself often. Again and yet again he underlines his point. There is no room for compromise, there is no sustenance outside the community.”

But Elizabeth’s husband, Isaac, listens to the same words and reacts much differently. He hears “a voice strong and confident, ideas unwavering . . . [Isaiah] will insure [the community’s] safety and consistency.” The care with which such different interpretations are drawn -- and the struggles these characters undertake to reconcile them -- reveals just how tenuous the unity of such a seemingly uniform community can be.

The summer world of the Kirshners is set against the background of Kaaterskill Falls’ year-round residents, who resent the annual influx even as they depend on it. The woman widowed by a car crash, a crooked developer who threatens to change the landscape forever, a judge who is willing to bring old secrets to light -- these townspeople provide other, more worldly perspectives as their stories overlap and contribute to the narrative threads of the Kirshners.

This is not a novel of drastic actions or wrenching plot turns. Instead, it illustrates how inner lives, when carefully examined, provide more than ample drama -- how routine days can, and should, confuse and excite us. By painting the lives of the Kirshners in specific detail, Goodman creates a world that should resonate with readers of all beliefs. Like the best novels, Kaaterskill Falls forces us to wonder at how we are living our lives.

Peter Rock was a 1995-97 Stegner fellow in creative writing. His new novel is Carnival Wolves.

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.