‘Sam’, the latest novel by Allegra Goodman, is small, but not simple

The last couple of years have taught us all to be cautious about our New Year’s expectations, but every year that begins with the publication of a new Allegra Goodman novel promises—promises only—to get off to a good start. In her more than 30-year career, Goodman has distinguished herself as a first-rate literary cartographer, a painstaking mapper of closed worlds.

For example, his 2006 novel, Intuitiontransported readers deep into the politics and personal rivalries of an elite cancer research laboratory; Kaaterskill Fallsreleased in 1998 and was a finalist for the National Book Award, it was set in the Orthodox Jewish summer community that gave the novel its title.

On the contrary, the subject of his latest novel – a coming-of-age story called Sam— at first glance it may seem overly familiar. Goodman herself says in an introductory letter to her readers that she feared this “novel might seem small and simple.” She does. But, however mundane the world may be Sam depicts, is also strictly circumscribed by class and culture. In his own way, the working-class world of Gloucester, Mass., is just as hard to get out of as some of the other worlds Goodman has charted.

The novel follows a working-class white girl named Sam from approximately the ages of 7 to 19. Her family consists of her loving and chronically exhausted young single mother, Courtney, and her younger half-brother, Noah, who has behavioral problems. Sam’s father, Mitchell, is a gentle wizard/musician struggling with addiction who appears and disappears erratically throughout much of his childhood.

During one of his first stints still in the city, Mitchell takes Sam to a rock climbing gym. Hurting against a wall of manufactured boulders and cracks and trying to fight your way to the top becomes Sam’s passion. It is also the novel’s implied metaphor for how difficult it will be for Sam to trudge onto a secure perch above his mother’s oppressive life of multiple low-wage jobs.

Goodman tells this story in the third person through Sam’s point of view, which means that the first few chapters drag us through the events with the jumping enthusiasm and elementary vocabulary of a 7-year-old. That style matures with Sam, and her personality changes, becoming more held back by disappointment and a deep sense of unworthiness triggered by Mitchell’s abandonment.

By the time Sam enters her large public high school, where she feels like “a molecule,” she has shut down, even temporarily giving up climbing. Sam’s mom Courtney keeps urging her to plan: She’s naturally good at math, so why doesn’t she aim for community college where she could earn an accounting degree? But Sam ignores these pep talks. She subconsciously resigns herself to the fact that her after-school and summer jobs at the coffee shop, dollar store, and pizza place will freeze into her adult life.

Sam is a rare type of literary novel: a novel about a trial. Here is the process of going up and down; giving up and, in Sam’s case, ultimately pushing himself to risk wanting more. The pleasure of this book is to experience how mood swings happen over time, realistically. But that slow pace of the novel also makes quoting difficult. Perhaps this snippet of conversation will give you an idea of ​​its rhythms. In this scene, Sam unexpectedly passes her driving test, so she and her mother, Courtney, and brother Noah are celebrating by spreading a sheet on the couch and eating buttered popcorn and watching the Bruins on TV.

“Guys, here’s what I want you to remember,” Courtney says. “don’t give up and you’ll get somewhere.”

No one is listening, because the score is tied.

“You must have goals like…”

“College,” Sam and Noah intone, eyes on the TV. ….

They are pleased when the phone starts ringing and Courtney takes it into the bedroom.

It’s quiet at first. Then Sam can hear his mother half begging, half screaming. …

When Courtney returns, it’s game over. She drops down on the couch and tells them Grandma fell. … Courtney has to leave tomorrow and stay a few days to help her.

The tiredness, the sense of ineluctability is palpable. Goodman doesn’t decry the realities that can keep people stuck in place; but he also celebrates the mysterious urge that can sometimes, as in Sam’s case, cause someone to resist the pull of gravity and find their footholds beyond the known world.

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