We meet Sam at the start of her voyage when she’s a sweet, 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.” Having abandoned his domestic responsibilities, he’s free to drop in unpredictably and dazzle Sam. “He can run faster than anybody,” she thinks. “He plays every instrument and the harmonica. He can read your palm and, also, he knows magic.”
That achingly sincere voice is the heart and soul of “Sam.” And anyone who has ever been the focus of a child’s impossibly inflated regard will feel alternately charmed and gutted by Sam’s devotion. Although Goodman writes in the third person, she never strays from the girl’s table-high view, an angle that shrouds adults’ thoughts but illuminates the child’s realm of rules and wonders.
“You have to learn about blue whales,” Goodman writes with perfect fidelity to what Sam sees and hears. “They are the size of three school buses, but they have no teeth, just baleen, and they suck up tiny krill. Did you know people hunted them until they were almost extinct? They are still endangered. Think about that. Do your work. Put everything away. You’re in second grade, not Pre-K. Line up. Walk quietly to Art. No running no shouting no fighting.”
Still, despite that guileless perspective, readers will sense dangers ahead without knowing exactly what they are. This is, after all, a story of disillusionment, which is to say, this is a story of growing up. And so one ventures across these pages like a winter skater lured by fragile beauty onto thin ice.
Threats gather quickly in this portrait of life lived along the poverty line in modern-day America. Sam’s little brother exhibits behavioral challenges that no one seems willing to diagnose. Her harried mom works two jobs that can’t support the family. Boyfriends and relatives offer financial support only begrudgingly. And despite his grandiose promises and high spirits, Sam’s alcoholic father grows increasingly scarce and unreliable until she learns how foolish it is to trust a man who never says no. “Some people tell lies about the past,” Sam thinks. “Her dad tells lies about the future.”
All his magic tricks are merely cheap illusions, but he does give Sam something of real consequence: He lets her climb a tower at a state fair, and then he takes her to climbing lessons at the YMCA. She’s instantly hooked and soon full of her father’s pat advice. “Climbing is hard,” she says. “It’s not just a sport; it’s an art. It requires your whole body and your whole mind. Humility. Perseverance. Respect!” And of course, it’s a powerful physical metaphor of adolescence. “Climbing,” Sam soon learns, “is mostly falling.”
As the story moves along, Sam enters middle school and then high school, suffering the usual disappointments and irritations. Friends are fickle. Mom is obsessed with her grades and can be, like, super overcontrolling. Why won’t Sam study harder? Why won’t Sam cut her hair? Where was Sam last night? Through it all, climbing provides an outlet for her energy and offers a sense of accomplishment. Or failure.
In her novels — starting with “Kaaterskill Falls,” which was a finalist for a National Book Award in 1998 — Goodman has always been a sensitive and illuminating chronicler of ordinary people’s lives. “Paradise Park” (2001), her humorous novel about American spirituality, demonstrates how well she can fold real substance into a charming story.
So it sounds churlish to raise reservations about a novel as tender as “Sam,” but there’s something increasingly restrained about this book that’s out of style with its modern plot. What feels adorable and raw in the early chapters grows merely moody as Sam comes of age. When Sam is a child, everything is concrete and visceral, but in her teenage years, Goodman throws a crepe of Victorian sensibility over the proceedings. At times, she doesn’t seem to have an actual body with all its discombobulating humiliations, desires, excretions and surprises.
In some chapters, Goodman’s tastefulness is so extreme as to be opaque. A subplot involving sexual abuse is written with such delicacy that even Texas’s book-banning Gov. Greg Abbott (R) might let it pass. Later chapters concerning Sam’s first long-term relationship raise the specter of “living in sin” while barely wrinkling the sheets.
It’s not that “Sam” needs more — or any — sexual explicitness; it’s just that the story gradually relinquishes its intimacy, its attention to the messy interior of a real young person’s mind. Moments of self-pitying despair fade beautifully into thoughtful realizations, like flowers tossed with faux casualness into a wicker basket for a glossy photo shoot.
If only the author would take as many risks on the page as Sam does on the boulders. This is, after all, a story that involves exploitation, divorce, addiction, death and guilt, but “Sam” never free solos. We know the novel’s prettiness will always be there to belay this heroine to a gentle landing.
Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.
The Dial Press. 316 pp. $28
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