All New People by Anne Lamott. (North Point Press: $16.95; 176 pages.)
"All New People" is about a woman in her '30s who comes back to her childhood home after a disastrous marriage and all kinds of family tragedies and semi-tragedies, to make peace with her past and get a grip on her present.
The town she returns to is in Marin County, with pretty little houses, a pleasing stretch of shoreline on San Francisco Bay, and a railroad yard, where, in earlier days, trains used to run. Now they don't, and the publicity material that accompanies this book mentions the loss of the railroad as a focal point, because, I believe the real material of this novel is too weird, too fascinating, too embarrassing to put in a blurb.
In an uncharacteristically awkward expositional device, the narrator, brokenhearted Nan Goodman, goes to see a hometown hypnotist for "anxiety, melancholia; fears of loss, rejection, death, humiliation, suicide, madness . . . " The hypnotist regresses Nan back into a series of basic, dreadful moments--but none of them, it's important to note here, are really serious in the cosmic scheme of things. Nan remembers not being invited to her best friend's birthday party in grade school, or leaving the home where people love each other because her own marriage has broken up, or falling into the arms of an old lover only to discover that he's already got a new girlfriend at home, or lying to her parents about an affair with a married man and then getting caught at it. These are trying moments of course, the distressing emotional hangnails of life, but the reader perceives--and surely the author means us to--that it's not the problems that are so bad, but that Nan Goodman herself is hanging on by her fingernails. Why?
As probably the world's most devoted fan of Anne Lamott, it distresses me to have to say that her plot here doesn't seem quite to match up with her intentions. The novel is told in a series of flashbacks, and at some level should probably explain all that "anxiety, melancholia . . . rejection, death, humiliation, suicide, madness," but the narrator's childhood seems comparatively bucolic and filled with decent people. Nan's dad, Robbie, is a '60s writer and bohemian, whose magazine pieces embarrass his daughter. Nan's mom, Marie, has one nostril bigger than the other, and is therefore embarrassing, but the real sense of shame the narrator feels comes from the marginal life they lead; the constant, writerly worries about money; the fact that her family is old-time, left-wing progressive, and her mother believes in a personal God.
There's a flashback plot, revolving around an aunt, an uncle and Nan's mom's best friend. There's a one-night stand, and an illegitimate child born out of that connection. As the 1960s deepen, all the dads of all the families in town leave (including Nan's, but he comes back after only one month). And Nan's brother begins to smoke grass at the age of 13, but in the 1960s in Northern California that was neither news nor tragedy . . .
So one reads this book as an act of deciphering. What is it about , for Pete's sake? Anne Lamott is too wonderful a writer to take up your time with anything trivial. When it came to me, it did seem weird, fascinating, embarrassing but incontrovertible. This is really a story of acceptance of Nan's mother and her values --her mother's sturdy belief in a companionable, compassionate, totally personal God, and her mother's unassuming, unconditional love for her husband, her friends, her children. Now, I ask you: Is that hip? Is that cool? Absolutely not. (Which is probably why the publisher prefers to suggest that this is a railroad story.)
But take a look at the important books written by our finest women authors today. Look at Bharati Mukherjee's "Jasmine," or Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club." These and dozens of other novels address what it is to be a child, what it is to be a mother. A Newsweek critic, writing about Amy Tan, said grumpily that he just didn't get it. Maybe he's not supposed to. Maybe--and it doesn't cheer me up any to suggest this--women perceive their primary relationships "vertically." Maybe an invisible matriarchy of love and hate is society's crazy glue, its centrifugal force. And once perceiving that, what else can our women writers do but report it?