We gave it an A
The news from paradise isn’t good. Heaven, as far as respectable theologians are concerned, is a bit off the map. Heaven on earth is no longer on anyone’s political itinerary. And tropical paradise is mostly paradise lost, every version of it cluttered with high-rise hotels and hordes of jet-lagged tourists. Besides, as Death once put it, et in Arcadia ego — in other words, even in Waikiki there is work for undertakers. The problem is to turn all this into a comic novel, one ending with the words ”good news.” It’s a problem that the British writer David Lodge solves with his customary ease.
Which should come as no surprise to readers of Lodge’s previous novels. Anyone who can extract farce from Catholic teachings on birth control (The British Museum Is Falling Down) or academic literary theory (Small World and Nice Work) isn’t going to have much trouble fitting humor into a book crowded with the great issues of life (God, doubt, sex, love, death, waiting in line at airports). Paradise News, in fact, accommodates all of Lodge’s familiar themes: Catholicism and its discontents; the inhibitions of British professors and the tendency of brash American women to remove them; the upending of solemn theories by the banana peels comic novelists have always favored — the slippery mess of everyday life, common sense, common sex.
Our halfhearted hero is 44-year-old Bernard Walsh, who teaches theology without believing a word of it in Lodge’s facsimile of Birmingham — drab, damp Rummidge. Raised in a pious, pinched lower-middle-class London family, he was groomed to be a dutiful teaching priest, but along the way he lost his faith as he might lose a set of keys — without knowing when, where, or how. A failed, unconsummated affair with a nurse seals the doom of his religious vocation while leaving him with two of its chief qualifications: theological agility and total celibacy.
Now Bernard finds himself dragging his dour, elderly father onto a Hawaii- bound jet filled with garishly dressed vacationers on a package tour. His aunt, long estranged from the family, is dying of cancer in Honolulu and has summoned them. This is the cheapest, and most embarrassing, way to go: ”There was, after all, something incongruous, even indecent, about using a package holiday to visit a dying relative.” Under the glaring Waikiki sun, the incongruities swarm. While Bernard’s slightly fractured father lands in a hospital not far from doughty Aunt Ursula, Bernard falls into the hands, or arms, of the woman who hit the elder Walsh with her car, and the flummoxed theologian gets an intensive course in elementary sex. Meanwhile, amid the stirrings of love and unearthed family secrets, comic relief is supplied by the tourists who keep popping up. One of them is Lodge’s specialty, a theory- besotted professor. He’s investigating the ”sightseeing tour as secular pilgrimage. Accumulation of grace by visiting the shrines of high culture. Souvenirs as relics. Guidebooks as devotional aids. You get the picture.”
You get several pictures. Apart from caricatures, family portraits, and erotic etchings, the chief exhibit is an ”honest man” belatedly seizing the day, a virgin finally gathering his rosebuds. His theology slowly boils down to a sense of secular love and commitment, but that, along with what Rabelais on his deathbed called ”the Great Perhaps,” seems to be enough. This isn’t Lodge’s funniest or most ingenious novel — Small World still carries that honor — but it’s his most searching, and what it turns up is a comic gospel of modest good news delivered from a tawdry tourist paradise.