Paradise, once the bailiwick of the church, is now the concern of travel agents. Heaven, once the abode of serene harp players, now features hula dancers and Don Ho. If you're looking for Saint Peter, he's the guy in the airport lounge, about to festoon your neck with a lei. The divide between traditional and modern concepts of an Earthly Reward propels David Lodge's new novel of manners on vacation, Paradise News.
Bernard Walsh, former priest and now part time theology instructor at Britain's St. John's College, finds himself adrift in his forties: having lost his faith, he hasn't made the transition to the secular world, with its promise of sex and material rewards. Then comes the news that his long-forgotten Aunt Ursula is dying of cancer in Hawaii. At Ursula's request, Bernard convinces his aged father to accompany him to Hawaii to reconcile with his sister. To economize on the trip, they buy a discount package from a travel agent, which throws them in with a diverse group of vacationers.
There's Sue and Dee, women in their thirties, clad in sweatsuits, seeking men in bars all over the world, but never finding one good enough. There's Brian Everthorpe, who seems to have a video camera surgically attached to his shoulder, forcing his wife to star in The Everthorpes in Waikiki. And the honeymooners, Russ and Cecily, at war over a recently discovered adulterous liaison. And we mustn't forget R. J. Sheldrake, who comes to Hawaii on a mission.
As he puts it, "I'm doing to tourism what Marx did to capitalism, what Freud did to family life. Deconstructing it. You see, I don't think people really want to go on holiday, any more than they really want to go to church. ... People really aren't enjoying themselves when they go on holiday, but engaging in a superstitious ritual. It's no coincidence that tourism arose just as religion went into decline. It's the new opium of the people, and must be exposed as such."
Following an accident which puts his father in the hospital, Bernard meets a woman, and his ineptitude with her forces him once again to reflect on his life, one spent thinking about God without necessarily believing in Him, as he finds himself in paradise, rather than Paradise.
"The appeal of the Gospel message, though, remains essentially the same. The Good News is news of eternal life, Paradise news. For my parishioners I was a kind of travel agent, issuing tickets, insurance, brochures, guaranteeing them ultimate happiness."
No longer the spiritual Travelaide, Bernard must come to terms with his spirituality and his sexuality. For the remainder of the novel, we follow him and the other tourists as they live out their two weeks in paradise, and the book ends with a marriage, though the identity of the pair may surprise you.
In Paradise News, Lodge is covering territory previously traversed by Walker Percy in The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, and Love in the Ruins, comically portraying the problem of the man of faith who can no longer find an object for his spiritual impulse. While Percy's orientation is existentialist, Lodge mines this subject for its social comedy, treating the philosophical implications of his theme with a lighter touch.
Author of the hilarious academic satires Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work, Lodge has moved gradually into mainstream fiction, featuring characters with problems other than sex, publishing and tenure. Paradise News marks another chapter in this transition and, while lacking the satiric intensity of his former work, this novel's insight into tourism and religion makes it worth consideration.