KEEPING IN TOUCH. By Ellen Goodman. Summit. 313 pp. $16.95.
ELLEN GOODMAN'S good sense and sense of humor permeate this fourth collection of her Boston Globe columns, a running commentary on the ironies, absurdities and attitudes of American life over the past four years.
Like all columnists, she is an interpreter of events, drawing meaning from the news as it happens. Reading these as a collection, however, is a different experience from reading them day to day. Given that the column format is the 50-yard dash of the essay world, there is an odd, quirky rhythm to the book; yet it forms a kind of recent social history, a pointillistic portrait of American concerns as they are funnelled through the media.
These columns make it hard not to think, Have the last four years really been that crazy? There's the Federal Emergency Management Agency telling us we can count on the large number of urban migrants to help harvest the crops after a nuclear war, and researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine that we ought to eat like the hunter-gatherers of 40,000 years ago to live longer. (This might be great news for all those post-nuclear urban migrants.) Goodman writes of poor Baby Fae and her baboon heart, of a New Yorker ad for a three-piece executive maternity suit, of a Florida firm's "aerial burial" plan to send the ashes of those who can afford it into space -- "It's depressing to believe that all that research paved the way for a celestial cemetery; it's rather like discovering that the DNA double helix could be used for a corkscrew."
TAKE 259328 PAGE 00002 TIME 17:01 DATE 10-24-85 Goodman uses these events to comment on the larger society as she sees it, the society which gives rise to, often tolerates, and even applauds the questionable or the unlikely. A class in -- no kidding -- "How to Marry Money" becomes a metaphor for the '80s, when "greed has finally come out of the closet," and the perfect expression of Reaganomics -- "it takes place exclusively in the private sector and depends solely on private enterprise. It is even, you might say, a volunteer self-help effort." A look at the notion of herpes as the scourge of promiscuity distinguishes changing sexual behavior from improved values -- "Not long ago, extramarital sex . . . was weighted down with fears of brimstone, not to mention pregnancy. Many people continue to need some sort of deterrent, some external reason to abstain . . . to deal sanely with their sexuality. We have gone from hell to herpes in three generations."
Not all of these columns pack quite that punch, and not all spring from topics quite so outr,e. Many are simply solid expressions of her perspective on urban life, family relationships, scientific ethics, political values, and feminism. She is pro-family values and antinuclear; she questions popular ideas of "progress" and "success," while acknowledging the complexities of most issues. To counter the rigid positions and pat answers she perceives in our time, she tries to "chronicle the ambivalence I hear, the mixed feelings and values . . . to counter the centrifugal force that spins us toward opposite poles." Goodman applies the standards of compassion and sanity to the events she interprets and calls for us to apply them in the way we behave.
While her style emphasizes irony and the one-liner, she is also deadly serious. Writing about America's excitement over its first test tube baby, or any well publicized, dramatic event, she points out: "Tell us about an abandoned baby and we will call by the hundreds with offers of food, money . . . Tell us about a child who will not survive without a fancy operation and we will set up a fund . . . . But . . . tell us that thirteen out of a thousand infants will die in this country and it seems remote. Talk about nutrition for two million of the poor and pregnant and we do not find it . . . urgent."
Even those who might disagree with Goodman's liberal views would be hard- pressed not to recognize the truth in her portrait of the America we live in. Most of us may not find ourselves in the media, but we do find ourselves confronted with the issues she raises, the public and private decisions they require. From Ronald Reagan to jogging to Johnny Carson's divorce, the subjects she writes about form the subtext of our lives.