Allegra Goodman writes circles around most other young writers by not writing circles around them. Her unfussy, matter-of-fact style borrows from Grace Paley and Philip Roth, but in "The Family Markowitz," her new collection of linked short stories, Goodman sounds like nobody else. You move through these smart and slyly funny stories -- about a cerebral and squabbling extended Jewish family -- with an increasing appreciation of her deep-seated talent. It's bad form to quote blurbs from book-flaps, but Cynthia Ozick gets it exactly right about Goodman: "All the muse-fairies were present at her birth."
Goodman has a gift that's inherent in many comic writers -- the ability to pull together an intimate but far-flung group of people (in this case, a family of failed intellectuals, cranky matriarchs and religiously obsessive children) and stand back while they annoy the hell out of each other. What's refreshing about Goodman, however, is that she doesn't settle for easy riffs and cheap ironies. While there is plenty of nicely grouchy humor here (one character complains that his brother has spent endless years in therapy only to develop "the most complicated persona possible -- the expatriate Brooklyn Jew in Oxford"), Goodman's prose has a steady, silent reserve that always indicates she has bigger things on her mind.
Most of the tension in "The Family Markowitz" is supplied by Goodman's interest in the clash between orthodoxy (religious, academic, you name it) and modern liberalizing impulses. Thus, two brothers maintain a running, and often hilarious, dialogue on modern scholarship. One brother rejects the other's political and sexual analyses of books because, "For Henry, reading had always been a gentle thing, a thing as delicate as blowing eggs. Two pinpricks and the meaning came, whole, unbroken, into the bowl." And in a moving story called "The Four Questions," about a ritual Passover dinner, a father wonders what he did to make his young daughter so conservative and angry.
Goodman's one previous book, a collection titled "Total Immersion," appeared nearly eight years ago, in 1989. "The Family Markowitz" is a revelation, and more than worth the wait.