STEPHEN GOODWINS'S first novel, kin, was a story about a white Southerner who brought a black fellow-soldier home with him for a visit. Sometimes brittle, disturbingly edgy, it had, nevertheless, a ring of honesty and intelligence that suggested Stephen Goodwin was a writer to watch.
The Blood of Paradise, his second novel, will strike Goodwin-watchers as a kind of flowering. It's not merely a step forward; it's a leap-a book that seems laden, rich, powerful. It tells a complicated story without any attempts to analyze or oversimplify, and the three characters at its center are so profoundly alive that whatever room you're reading this in will seem densely populated.
The hero is a man named Steadman-known only by his last name, and it suits him well. He is steady indeed, a solid person whom we trust instinctively. He has a wife named Anna who resembles a Modigliani painting, and a daughter, Maggie, who is wonderfully childlike-solemn and funny without a hint of cuteness. In fact, one of the most touching things about the Steadmans is their grave (and entirely justified) admiration of their daughter. "Is her memory astonishing," Steadman asks his wife, "or just normal?"
"Both," Anna says.
This small family, as the book opens, is setting into an old farm in the mountains of Virginia. They hope to live of the land, eventually. Steadman, God willing, may even become a writer. They clean up the farmhouse, plant rows of vegetables, climb mountains, hunt. Work, here, is described with a kind of love and respect. No one since Larry Woiwode has realized so well the telling qualities of the perfectly dovetailed log and the freshly sanded floor. And the natural world around them is so vivid you could scratch yourself on its bramble-bushes. It's not only the "profuse blue sparkle of dew" that you see, or the birds with their songs like "so many sweet drills loosening a glacial mass," but also the stench and "green muck" of the live-stock pens, and the rabid fox gnawing on his own scraped, wretched hide.
What keeps The blood of Paradise from being too pastoral, too even-tempered, is the subtle tension between Steadman and his wife. Steadman, though a tolerant man, has his black moods and his fits of anger, and Anna is more seriously disturbed. She suffers from a constant sense of dread. She traces her problems to the fact that she is a twin-one of a matched set that was given (she half believes) a single ration of happiness, so that every moment of contentment she experiences is a moment stolen from her restless, bitter sister. Anna walks a very thin edge through much of this book, and there are times when she nearly topples over. "Why is everything worse for you than for anybody else?" her husband asks her. We share his annoyance; she makes us nervous, and any untroubled thought she has comes as a great relief to us. But she is also the secret of this book's vitality. She is the fine, spiky wire running beneath Steadman's strength. The ragedness of their together-its clumsiness and its unexpected sweetness-comes across with perfect clarity, largely because Stephen Goodwin knows what to leave in the balance, tenuous, merely suggested.
But he also knows what to state outright. The sex in this book is wonderful. It's described directly, unflinchingly, but never forced to bear more than its share of theistory's load. And when Steadman tries to write, we see his writing. (For some reason, fictional musicians and artists may produce a nebulous haze, but writers-more suspect, often stand-ins for the authors-had better prove they mean business. Steadman does.)
There are moments in The Blood of Paradise that hit almost physically. Steadman, walking away from his grandfather's coffin at the funeral home, simply falls down and cannot rise for several seconds-an event that's unexplained, almost dreamlike, but it is seems absolutely reasonable. The child Maggie, dressing for a reunion with her mother after a long separation from her, exasperates Steadman by her painstaking care and slowness, but "when satisfied at last she looked at him with such humility and uncertainty that he was ashamed: she thought she wouldn't be loved as she wasn't beautiful."
"We are real, all right," Anna says writing to Steadman while she is away, "and that place is real . . . and our griefs are real and our deaths will be real. We do not have to invent them."
I believe her.