Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Allegra Goodman's Intuition

Last week I belatedly finished Allegra Goodman's third novel Intuition. It's her fifth book. Her first was Total Immersion, a collection of short stories that she published her senior year at Harvard. She is widely regarded as one of America's best young writers. I tend to agree. She's a fantastic storyteller. However, I am perhaps a bit biased. You see, Allegra and I go way back.

I'll be up front and say, yeah, I'm name-dropping. Allegra and I are not friends. We are distant acquaintances. If we walked past one another on the street, she may not recognize me. If you reminded her, however, she'd remember. When I saw her at a Barnes & Noble a few years back when her first novel Kaaterskill Falls was published and she was touring, she remembered me. I think I sent her a family Hanukkah card or two. I may send another one this year. She seemed happy to see me back in 1999 at that Barnes & Noble, but then again, she was probably just being courteous.

I should elaborate. Anyone familiar with Allegra's earlier work will know she wrote about being Jewish in Hawai'i. She refers to "Martin Buber Temple" and writes semi-autobiographically, especially in her earlier stories. Martin Buber Temple is a fictional version of Temple Emanu-El:

That's the place where I received my Jewish education, where I was bar mitzvah'ed and where I met Allegra Goodman.

Allegra went to my rival high school, but as children and pre-teens we shared some space at the temple Hebrew School.

I will confess. I didn't like Allegra or her sister, Paula. Paula's a doctor now. I'll go out on a limb and say the Goodman sisters didn't like me, either. I was an obnoxious jerk to them, and didn't take my religious education very seriously. I'm not blaming the other boys my age, but I was just part of the crowd of rambunctious Jewish boys (Ross Levy, Kale Flagg, Ivan Robin, Jeff Pepper, etc.) who were disruptive as ten and eleven-year old boys can be.

Allegra and Paula were serious students. They were smart, bordering on genius. And they knew it. They were everything I would hope my daughters will be. They were my opposites. I really couldn't stand them. As I aged, I realized how poorly I judged them. I don't recall ever saying or doing anything hurtful to them, but it wouldn't surprise me if I did. As they say, boys will be boys.

I am assuming that I will not someday appear as a character in one of Allegra's books. In retrospect, I don't think I was anything that significant in Allegra's life, just someone she might remember from a long, long time ago. But knowing her when I did, remembering her from a specific place and time, I feel particularly connected to Allegra's books, especially the ones that are set in the Hawai'i of my youth.

That's perhaps why I waited so long to read Intuition. It has nothing to do with Hawai'i, or the prevailing Jewish themes in her earlier novels. So when the Bay Ridge Jewish Center's reading group picked it, I finally had my excuse. And I didn't finish it in time for the discussion (blame John Dunning for that one). However, it was compelling enough and interesting enough for me to finish. And I liked it.

So, honestly, this post has been more about me than Allegra's book. I'll cut this short and direct you here, to Allegra's home page. She lists her books and links reviews and other related articles.

Also, here is a great article from last March's New York Times about the writing of Intuition.
If for any reason you can't read it (i.e. registration is required, etc etc), go here to read the text.

Plus, if you're interested, go here to hear Allegra reading from and discussing the novel.

As a postscript to this, I will speak in some additional vague terms about why I feel so connected to her. We had similar, yet very different upbringings. After high school, my mother often ran into her parents in the islands before they moved in 1994 to Nashville and Vanderbilt University. Sadly, Allegra's mother passed away from cancer in 1996 at the young age of 51.

In the Summer 1994 "Fiction Issue," The New Yorker, ran a series of photographs of many of its published novelists standing together. I cut out and pasted Allegra and John Updike standing next to one another. I put this in my binder of my poetry drafts as inspiration. I mark this as a driving point that motivated me to continue writing poetry in the 1990s.

Looking at the sliced up photo now, I recognize the photograph as the work of Richard Avedon. The caption is cut off, but it appears that Haruki Murakami and Michael Chabon were also part of the series. This was way before I had read anything by either of them. Of course, I had heard of Updike and was very impressed to see him standing next to Allegra.

I have subsequently found a copy of this issue online and have ordered it. Stay tuned and I'll share the photos when I get it in the mail.

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