New York Times Book Review
Paradise, New York: A Novelby Eileen Pollack
We first meet Lucy Appelbaum, the heroine of Paradise, New York, in 1970, as a nine-year-old girl enjoying her family's Catskills hotel, the Garden of Eden. Ten years later, having found nothing else at which she can distinguish herself, Lucy tries to save the Eden by capitalizing on a wave of nostalgia for the Borscht Belt and running the hotel as a sort of living museum of Yiddish culture.
In the course of the season, Lucy battles her grandmother's attempts to sabotage Lucy's success, her parents' superstitious fears of anything that attracts attention to the Jews, and her brother's contention that what Lucy is doing is more a matter of ego than authentic religious feeling.
Paradise, New York explores the comforts and complexities of American ethnic identity with a charming commitment to laughter and love.
New York Times Book Review
- Temple University Press
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Read an Excerpt
If God had found a reason to take a snapshot of Paradise, it would have shown Main Street to be the trunk of an evergreen, roads sprouting like boughs so ragged and droopy the whole thing resembled a Christmas tree left by the curb. Once, fifty resorts had decorated the branches of Paradise. Now, the remains clung to the roads like cracked, fading baubles. That December afternoon in 1978, as I drove with my mother to our family's hotel, I counted nine victims of Jewish lightning, the freakish force that strikes only vacant resorts with no chance for profit except from insurance. ("Hey Solly, I was upset to hear about your fire." "Shh!" whispers Sol, "it's not until tomorrow.") Patches of snow drifted over charred beams; the chimneys had fallen and lay in jutted curves like black spinal columns.
Most of the resorts had simply been abandoned. The main houses stood, but the stucco had peeled from beneath the windows and these looked out beyond the gates like haunted eyes. Handball backboards poked up from overgrown fields, warped plywood tombstones inscribed in flaking paint with the names of the dead.
As we drove past the backboard for Fein's Hillside Manor, I thought of my fight in first grade with Jeff Fein.
"The Eden's a shit house," Jeff hissed across our table in art class. "The pool's cracked. The food stinks!"
In my rage, I hammered Jeff again and again in his pudding-soft stomach until he recanted. Now, it seemed my blows had battered not Jeff, but his parents' hotel. Contrite, I admitted that Fein's Hillside indeed had been superior to the Eden, at least in regard to the cheesecake it served, the parquet floor in its lobby, and the slide by its pool -- a white bow of steel that shone, iridescent, when the sun hit just so. I took no satisfaction that the Manor's pool was now gruesome with tree limbs, the lobby long gone.
Just past the Manor the road became a roller coaster. As a child I'd loved to ride in the back seat of our car, especially when my brother, Arthur, was driving. The car would fly over a rise, then drop. Giddy, I would scream out the names on each backboard while Arthur cursed the Eden in a voice that made me think of a radio turned so low you couldn't make out the words, you only knew the announcer was warning of catastrophes to come. Once, I asked Arthur why he drove so fast if he didn't want to get there. "If we have a crack-up," he said, "your mother might give me the afternoon off."
Today, with the roads coated in ice, my mother drove slowly, with great concentration. She was four-feet-eleven and seemed to be using the wheel to do chin-ups. The car barely moved, but she kept asking, Was she scaring me?
No, I was fine.
"But you keep sighing, sweetheart."
I pointed to the wreckage of the once-stately Queen Esther.
"The Esther's been dosed for three years," my mother said. "You only noticed it now?"
The truth, we both knew, was that being away at college for only three months had given me the eyes to see my hometown as an outsider saw it -- as something dying, or dead. The luckiest resorts had been sold and reincarnated as retreats for Zen Buddhists (the former Green Pastures now sprouted a garden of fat golden statues), rehabilitation centers for drug addicts, sleep-over camps for handicapped children. Not far from the Eden were a Bible school for slow-learning Christians and a retirement home for Jewish vaudevillians.
"These Hasids," I said, "what do they want to do with the Eden, anyway?"
"Sweetheart," my mother said, "we are not meeting this man so we can examine his credentials. We are showing him the Eden, in the best light possible, which probably means we should hope for an eclipse."
"I don't understand why you're so desperate to sell. After all these years, why now?"
"Because I'm old. After all these years, I'm old."
I had been staring at the rotting hotels for so long that when I turned and looked at my mother, the image persisted and she seemed to me as wasted as those ruins by the road. Not that she ever had been a beauty. Her hair was dull brown. The center of her mouth was a smear of red lipstick; frown lines descended half an inch from each end. For the tour, she had put on a skirt as shapeless and drab as a grocery bag, white anklets, loafers, a mangy camel coat. Still, she always had been plump, with the blush of a peach. Now, a dried fig.
"Did something happen?" I said. "Since I went away, I mean?"
"I appreciate the concern." She tightened her lips to demonstrate that she didn't value my concern in the least. "It's your father," she said. "He's not a young man."
In the three seasons of the year when the Eden was closed, my father taught cooking at the county voc-ed school, preparing his students to be chefs at hotels that no longer existed. They were tough kids, rambunctious. He used to come home at night exhausted, tug off his support-hose and fall straight into bed. Was he more tired these days? Did he doze as he lectured, head dipping forward into a soup pot?
A jeep with an upraised plow rounded the curve ahead of us and charged, furious at our red station wagon. My mother dropped the full force of her body onto the brake, then swiveled in her seat to make certain that the jeep wouldn't turn and charge again. I asked if she thought my grandmother would agree to sell the Eden.
"She can't run it herself. If we refuse, she has no choice."
"She could conjure her imps and demons to help her."
My mother frowned. "Your grandmother is a strong woman. Hasn't your generation made that a virtue?"
"You know you'll miss it," I said.
"You'll miss it. Not your father and myself. Remember last summer, when the stove blew up? I had to drive into town, fry enough pirogen for fifty-three people, then rush back to the hotel before they got cold. And dinner! A dozen pullets from that oven!"
"You're pretending. You really do love it."
"I did love it, at one time. When your grandfather was alive. I mean, when he was living. You have no idea what influence he had over people. They would be bickering, complaining. Then he would start to mingle, and before you knew it, they would be in tears, that's how hard they were laughing. As crazy as it was, with him it had spirit."
I would have reminded her that her father would sooner have sold his wife than his hotel, but just then we passed the handyman's cabin, white in the mist, and the argument turned to dust in my throat. In my months in New York, I had come to suspect that I had imagined my childhood trips to this shack. I had lived in a fairy tale, inventing a prince I could save from bewitchment so he could confirm I was nobility myself, as no one else would. A daydream. A lie. And yet here was the cabin, solid wood after all.
The station wagon pirouetted across the Eden's parking lot like an ungainly skater. It skidded to a stop and my mother got out and minced across the frozen mud to the gate. I followed her, then stopped in the middle of the rutted lot and looked up.
Seeing the Eden without its camouflage of leaves was like glimpsing a family friend in a doctor's office, naked beneath the harsh lights. More than ever I wished the Eden had been as successful as That Other Hotel -- my grandmother wouldn't allow us to say its name in her presence -- that splendid city on the hill, which started from beginnings as humble as ours but had only grown larger, more famous and more elaborate as the Eden decayed.
For fifty-nine years my grandmother had vetoed every improvement, living in the hope that her husband would sell the Eden and take her back to New York, to resume his position as foreman at a factory that made ladies' coats, as he was when she had met him, before he had been "bitten by the hotel bug," as Grandpa Abe put it. ("A bedbug!" she screamed. "That's all that bit you!") But after Abe's stroke, she realized that the Eden was all she would ever possess on this earth. She refused to consider selling it; the one time my parents dared to broach the subject of what they might do if they "got a good offer," my grandmother cursed and used the cleaver she'd been holding to hack a game hen in two.
I didn't want to think what or whom she might cleave if she looked out her window and noticed her son-in-law leading a Hasid around her hotel. My parents' plan was this: my mother and I would keep Nana diverted while my father took the Hasid on a lightning-quick tour. When all that remained was a matter of blackmail ("Here, sign this paper, or we'll let it sit idle and you won't get a cent"), they would hide Nana's knives and hope for the best.
My mother and I set off for the bungalow. The doorbell was useless. My grandmother was deaf, and, though my mother had the key, this still left the problem of how to make contact -- if Nana were startled, she might assume a burglar had sneaked up behind her and roundhouse the culprit. The trick was to warn her by stomping your feet like an African hunter beating the bush.
We expected to find her in the stuffy back room where she passed the long winters like the miller's daughter, spinning straw into gold, or rather, converting a room full of garbage -- milk bottles, flour sacks, bread wrappers, corn husks, wooden crates and dyed elbow-macaroni -- into lamps, cushions, bath mats, night tables, vases, and items that seemed to have no other purpose than to keep the guests guessing as to what these might be. She'd also painted the artwork on the Eden's lobby walls: Queen Elizabeth on horseback, fox hunts, a chopping block in the Tower of London, various earls, dukes and knights, all of these copied from a book about England, as colorful as my grandmother's palette allowed. If she caught a guest staring at a painting, she would shout: "I used to live there!" and explain that her family spent a year in Liverpool on their way to New York. "The first day of school, naah, I can't say good morning in English. By the last day, Charles Dickens! The Round Table! Shakespeare! The teacher, she said I was a genius. In America, naah, I sew buttons on coats." She tapped the Queen Mother on her reddish-green nose. "She got nothing I don't!"
In the workshop we found a half-finished picture of Buckingham Palace made of dried split-peas and beans. But no Nana, anywhere.
"I don't think she went for groceries," my mother said. The cupboards were full of baby food, which, since my grandmother wouldn't pay for dentures, was all she could eat. "I'd better take the car and go find her. You stay here and warn your father."
I never had felt any great love or admiration for my grandmother. But, standing in her workshop that wintry afternoon, I experienced the unsettling sensation we were on the same side.
"Don't you feel guilty doing this?" I asked.
With a look that implied I was too smart to understand anything of consequence, my mother left me to contemplate the murky turpentine in a jar labeled STRAINED BEEF, the pile of dried peas, Nana's brushes and paints. The fumes burned my nostrils, and I finally escaped and skated down the path to wait for my father.
An iron arch spanned the walk, obscured by a chaos of warped wooden signs. The pictures showed primitive talent, though the artist since had turned to more regal subjects. At the center of the arch hung a painting of a couple in flesh-colored bathing suits. The tree in the background suggested these weren't ordinary guests, as did the red blob (a beach ball? some kind of fruit?) the woman was tossing toward the man. The garden of eden it said below this couple, and, below that: YOUR HOSTS ABE AND JENNIE APPELBAUM, with APPEL much fatter so no one could miss the pun at the core of the owners' name. To the left of this sign hung a golfer in knickers, huge as Paul Bunyan compared to the forest and lake at his feet. Eighteen-hole golf course it said, though the sign didn't reveal that the golf course was public and twelve miles down the road. More truthful were the promises of SHUFFLEBOARD, BASEBALL, HEALTHFUL POOL, TV (honest enough in its singular number) and NITELY AMUSEMENT. At the far right, a chorus of cows, fish and hens raised their mouths and beaks to sing THREE MEALS A DAY, VERY STRICT KOSHER. And there, across the top: ALL THOSE WHO ENTER LEAVE YOUR CARES HERE. I reached up and stroked Adam's smooth chest, Eve's wavy hair, the apple tree, the apple, the pale lemon sun.
Meet the Author
Eileen Pollack is best known for her collection of short fiction, The Rabbi in the Attic and Other Stories. She is currently Assistant Professor, Master of Fine Arts Program, at the University of Michigan.
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