Book Review Sam by Allegra Goodman

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In “The Writer,” one of my favorite poems by Richard Wilbur, the speaker pauses on the stairs and listens to his daughter work in her room:

Young as it is, the stuff

Of his life is a great load, and partly heavy:

I wish you a lucky ride.

In her new novel, “Sam,” Allegra Goodman offers an equally sympathetic reflection on the struggles of a young girl’s life.

We meet Sam early in her journey when she is a sweet and energetic 7-year-old living in Massachusetts. Her parents are divorced, but her handsome father, a small-time entertainer, is still “sort of around, sort of not.” After abandoning her domestic responsibilities, he is free to enter unpredictably and impress Sam. “She can outrun anyone else,” she thinks. “She Plays every instrument and harmonica. She can read your palm and besides, she knows magic.

That painfully sincere voice is the heart and soul of “Sam.” And anyone who has ever been the center of a child’s incredibly inflated respect will feel alternately enthralled and gutted by Sam’s devotion. although Goodman writes in the third person, never leaving the bird’s-eye view of the girl’s table, a corner that envelops adult thoughts but illuminates the child’s realm of rules and wonders.

“You must know about blue whales,” Goodman writes with perfect fidelity to what Sam sees and hears. “They’re the size of three school buses, but they have no teeth, just baleen, and they suck on tiny krill. Did you know that people hunted them until they were nearly extinct? I’m still in danger. Think about it. Do your job. Put everything away. You’re in second grade, not kindergarten. Align. Walk leisurely to the art. Don’t run, don’t shout, don’t fight.

However, despite that innocent perspective, readers will sense the dangers ahead of them without knowing exactly what they are. This is, after all, a story of disillusionment, which is to say, this is a story of growth. And so one ventures through these pages like a winter skater drawn to the fragile beauty on the thin ice.

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Threats quickly build up in this portrayal of life along the poverty line in modern America. Sam’s little brother has behavioral problems that no one seems willing to diagnose. His troubled mother works two jobs that cannot support the family. Boyfriends and relatives offer financial support only reluctantly. And despite his grand promises and good humor, Sam’s alcoholic father grows increasingly thin and unreliable until she discovers how foolish it is to trust a man who never says no. “Some people tell lies about the past,” Sam thinks. “His father tells lies about the future.”

All of his magic tricks are just cheap illusions, but he gives Sam something really important: He lets her climb a tower at a state fair, and then takes her to rock climbing lessons at the YMCA. She is immediately fascinated by him and soon filled with the advice of her father. “Climbing is hard,” she says. “It’s not just a sport; it is an art. It requires your whole body and your whole mind. Humility. Perseverance. Respect!” And, of course, it’s a powerful physical metaphor for adolescence. “Climbing,” Sam soon learns, “is mostly about falling.”

As the story progresses, Sam enters middle school and then high school, suffering the usual disappointments and irritations. His friends are fickle. Mom is obsessed with his grades and can be super controlling. Why doesn’t Sam study more? Why doesn’t Sam cut her hair? Where was Sam last night? Through it all, climbing provides an outlet for his energy and offers a sense of accomplishment. Or failure.

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In her novels — beginning with “Kaaterskill Falls,” which was a finalist for a National Book Award in 1998 — Goodman has always been a sensitive and illuminating chronicler of the lives of ordinary people. “Paradise Park” (2001), her humorous novel about American spirituality, demonstrates how well she can twist real substance into a fascinating story.

So it seems impolite to raise reservations about a tender novel like “Sam,” but there’s something increasingly sober about this book that’s unfashionable with its modern storyline. What seems adorable and gritty in the early chapters just gets moody when Sam comes of age. When Sam is a little girl, everything is concrete and visceral, but throughout her teens, Goodman injects a touch of Victorian sensibility onto the proceedings. Sometimes, he doesn’t seem to have a real body with all its bewildering humiliations, desires, excretions and surprises.

In some chapters, Goodman’s good taste is so extreme as to be opaque. A subplot involving sexual abuse is written with such delicacy that even Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) who banned the books could let it pass. Subsequent chapters regarding Sam’s first long-term relationship raise the specter of “living in sin” while barely wrinkling the sheets.

It’s not like “Sam” needs anything else — or any — sexual clarity; it’s just that the story gradually abandons its intimacy, its focus on the messy interior of a real young man’s mind. Moments of self-pitying despair fade beautifully into thoughtful accomplishments, like flowers tossed with feigned casualness into a wicker basket for a glossy photo shoot.

If only the author took as many risks on the page as Sam does on the boulders. This is, after all, a story of exploitation, divorce, addiction, death, and guilt, but “Sam” never has gratuitous solos. We know the beauty of the novel will always be there to ensure this heroine has a smooth landing.

Ron Carlo reviews books and writes the Book Club Bulletin for the Washington Post.

The dial Press. 316 pages $28

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