… and that is this: from now on, whenever I am asked to make a short list of my favorite books, Paradise News by David Lodge will certainly have to be included.
I have a minor hangup about books featuring British characters who are less than stellar. I love an American mystery with all sorts of scuzzy characters and cynical narration, the bleaker the setting the better, from Chandler to Vachss and all points in between, but I do not at all care for the same story set in England. It's kind of like the problem I have with casinos -- I once imagined they'd be filled with James Bonds, and later, at least with Ace Rothsteins and Ginger McKennas, and it turns out that what you really see in Vegas are waddlers and stool-bound lumps clad in overstressed sweatsuits, carrying the rent money in cups of coins, festooned with junk jewelry and Kourtesy Kards on coiled leashes -- more depressing than I can articulate. British lowlifes in novels make me feel the same sense of despair. Paradise News, it seemed at the start, was going to be even worse -- it was not a mystery, not even a hard-boiled or hard-bitten version of another genre. I sighed internally a few times, wondering rather nastily, "I guess this is supposed to be some kind of farce, maybe? And why did CKC hand me this thing, anyway?"
The story starts off set in Heathrow Airport. A number of characters are brought onstage, by ones and twos and fours, all of whom are seen at first from the perspective of a couple of employees of Travelwise Tours. These people, we soon find out, have all purchased the same holiday package deal that will put them on a plane and take them to Hawaii. A few pages in, we meet the Walshes, a forty-something son and his father. It turns out that these two are not English, but Irish, so their less than admirable natures made me wonder even harder how many more pages I'd give this book. Hints of a looming introduction to an overbearing sister did not ease my mind, either. (*ducks*)
As it happened (laziness while reading in bed, with nothing else in immediate reach), I pressed on just a bit more, and then it dawned on me that it was no longer a struggle and had not been since … well, I couldn't remember when. I was reminded of the jolt I felt about a half-hour into Three Kings when I watched that movie for the first time -- hey, sit up straight and pay attention; this shit is SERIOUSLY GOOD. And then it turned into a sheer delight, sullied only once more: by the eventual realization of how few pages remained.
I don't want to tell you much more than that, because if you like the book even a tenth as much as I did, you will be mad at me about every bit I did not let you come upon for yourself. On a related note, I beg you: do not look at the Wikipedia entry for this book. It is only a stub right now, but for all of its incompleteness, it manages to give away something you really don't want to know ahead of time. If it weren't so easy to revert edits, I would log in just to slap a 72-point scarlet red SPOILER ALERT across the top of that page.
Where were we? Oh, yes. I was going to stop talking about the book. But wait. Just two more things.
First, if you like the sheer decency of Dick Francis's heroes, you will come to like the main character in this book. And second, there is another aspect that also grabbed me: woven throughout are some fascinating threads to do with what the author/narrator calls "radical demythologizing theology." If you've been on a life journey at all like mine -- raised in a traditional form of one of the monotheistic religions that bit by bit had to be set aside as variously too annoying, too comical, too simplistic -- impossible to believe, fer crissakes -- I think you will find a lot to chew on here. Or more accurately: to note, and to set aside for later pondering -- this is not at all a ponderous book, and you will want to rush along to find out what happens next in the matters exclusive to this world. Lodge touches on some weighty topics (intelligent theology is only one of them) with all the grace of a jazz soloist who understands that silences and notes left out are what make a truly great piece of music. You may find yourself dog-earing lots of pages or making notes in the margin. Had my copy not been a loaner, I sure would have.
Or, you may not care for the theological bits at all. Not to worry. They will not get in your way in the slightest. The story enchants all by itself.
After I finished Paradise News, I turned to the back cover, and there was a line, sadly, attributed only to The Cleveland Plain Dealer, that I could not possibly improve upon:
In the quietest manner imaginable, David Lodge has written a vaultingly great book.
All right. Forget everything I said up till then, and pretend I just said that.
Odd note: I Googled "radical demythologizing theology", wondering whether it was a standard academic term. Apparently it is not. And now I must deal with the guilt of robbing Moristotle of a claim he has held for the past three years: up till now, the only English-speaking person on the planet who had typed that three-word phrase onto a computer connected to the Internet. (Sorry about that, Mo.)
Turns out that the post is an excerpt from the book, a passage that evidently resonated with Morris as much as it did with me. Oh, and, uh, spoiler alert, if your browser did not show you the fancy tooltip thing I added to that link.
Even odder (I love saying that) note: Morris's profile tells us where he lives, generally. The handwritten inscription in the front of my loaner copy -- it was a gift from CKC to her hubby -- says, in part, "From a used bookstore in North Carolina." Could it possibly be that I have just finished the same exact book that Morris once read?