SO many characters and narrative devices in "Paradise News" are recognizable that had David Lodge's name been deleted from the cartoonish dust jacket, seasoned Lodge readers would nevertheless quickly recognize his touch. His wit, poignancy, and astute observations on an array of topics have made him a much admired and loved writer on both sides of the Atlantic.
Lodge's fascination with the complex social rift between classes, between men and women, and between Americans and the British continues in his latest novel.
Theologian-teacher Bernard Walsh, the book's hapless, naive, and honest hero, had originally prepared for priesthood, imagining that "I would solve all my problems at a stroke: sex, education, career, and eternal salvation.... I spent most of my adult life insulated from the realities and concerns of modern secular society. It was rather like the life of a mid-Victorian Oxford don: celibate, male-centered, high-minded.... It was a civilized, dignified, not unsatisfying existence. Students looked up to yo u," he remembers, looking back at his teaching career. "There was, after all, nowhere else for them to look. We were masters of our tiny, artificial kingdom."
Walsh's calm, if uneventful, life is dramatically altered by a call from a long-lost aunt who begs him to come with his father (her brother) to Hawaii, where she is dying. Father and son travel on a package tour with a colorful crew of British eccentrics, including unhappy honeymooners, a bumbling academic, and two women who travel far and wide looking for romance. Each traveler bobs into and out of the saga of the Walsh family and their troubles in paradise.
The idea of paradise is an obsession for Lodge and several of his fictional stand-ins. Walsh, speaking of the Gospels, declares, "The Good News is of eternal life. Paradise News. For my parishioners I was a kind of travel agent, issuing tickets, insurance, brochures, guaranteeing them ultimate happiness." Yet, all the while he felt "lonely, hollow, unfulfilled.... There I was, an atheist priest, or at least an agnostic one. And I didn't dare tell anyone." The priests in Lodge's novels invariably seem an unhappy lot, plagued by metaphysical doubts and loneliness until they rather miraculously find love, their unexpected paradise.
Almost as soon as Bernard and his father arrive in Hawaii (which lists dozens of paradise enterprises in the phone book), his father gets hit by a car driven by the lovely Yolande Miller, who feels marooned in Hawaii. In the course of their ever-deepening friendship, Yolande explains to Bernard that "Paradise is boring, but you're not allowed to say so," especially in Hawaii where "every day is the same as the one before. Perhaps that's why so many people retire to Hawaii. It gives them the illusion they
won't die, because they're kind of dead already, just by being here." The history of Hawaii, as Yolande understands it, is one of loss. "Paradise stolen. Paradise infected. Paradise developed, packaged. Paradise sold."
Such acerbic observations are leavened by Lodge's customary playfulness and by his contagious empathy for his characters' complicated lives and fates. He has a wonderful way of surprising and enchanting his readers with whimsical, fairy-tale-like resolutions to problems that might have ended tragically in the hands of a less upbeat author. For all his cynicism, Lodge clearly believes in forgiveness and personal redemption.
Thus, fortune smiles upon Yolande and Bernard, the honeymooners find the joy and love that had at first eluded them, Bernard's aunt heals the rift that estranged her from her brother decades ago, and other family squabbles are resolved to everyone's satisfaction: All seem headed for a life that is, if not happily ever after, then at least happier than before. Lodge's basically decent and honest characters are rewarded for their goodness, and the characters whom we come to care about the most achieve some
real, if fleeting, paradise.