All New People Summary
All New People closely follows Anne Lamott’s life, a major event of which was the early death of her father, also a writer. The novel begins with a prologue in which the protagonist, Nanny Goodman, is undergoing hypnosis therapy. She says that her life is a mess and her mind is broken. Affairs, drugs, alcohol, depression, anxiety, fears of suicide, madness, and death constitute an insupportable burden. Nanny is in her twenties, but the therapist requires her to regress to childhood, reminding one both of Carl Jung’s admonitions about the need to go back in order to go forward and of Christ’s words about suffering little children.
The narrative proper begins with a largely idyllic picture of a pre-Yuppie Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and moves chronologically to Nanny’s present, wherein she has presumably learned to shoulder the burdens under which she was sinking. Over the course of this narrative, the Edenic green and golden Marin County that Nanny loved disappears, along with its most famous landmark, mythic Mount Tamalpais, known as the Sleeping Woman. The landscape is a major presence in the novel, but it is gradually submerged by present reality as it becomes one of America’s most sought-after and costliest pieces of real estate. The transformation of the beautiful prelapsarian rural county into an upscale world of high-priced shops, expensive restaurants, architect-designed houses, luxury cars, and wealthy people parallels Nanny’s loss of innocence and her slide into a slough of despond, now that she has no anchors.
As the 1950’s become the 1960’s, the social and political upheavals of the Vietnam War infect all the characters with a pervasive unease. Fathers abandon families, families break up, people break down, and drugs, insecurities, and anomie proliferate. Nanny’s brother Casey is setting a course for trouble with drugs and appears to be thinking about fleeing the draft to Canada. Uncle Ed and Aunt Peg separate. One of Nanny’s friends is raped and murdered. Marie’s best friend, Natalie, pregnant by Ed, moves to San Diego with her brood. Marie is in a car accident on her way to Carmel to offer succor to Peg, and as the national and local and personal centers cannot hold, even Peg—the only one to possess a Christian faith—finds herself hard pressed to sustain it.
Politics offers no hope for these characters, all of whom are liberal and lean to the left as a matter of course, in this liberal era. The novel is peppered with references to the Bay of Pigs, George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, and Pat Brown of California—but these progressive leaders all lose in their respective elections. Conversely, to vote for Richard Nixon or “Ronnie the Rat” Reagan is to be contemptuously dismissed as a political troglodyte. As W. B. Yeats proclaimed in his prophetic poem “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of a passionate intensity. The only solace is the bitter knowledge that in a hundred years the world will contain “all new people”—hence the title, with its multiple significances.
The evidence of an ever-present redemptive grace is nevertheless alluded to all along, usually wittily or with what would seem to many irreverence in a novel formed by equal parts of offbeat humor and serious purpose. Marie, a Christian, has shaken her fist at a God she calls a “retard” and a “cheese-dick” for allowing such disasters as the Vietnam War, with its pain and death, to happen. A Presence follows her around, an inescapable scent of a stray dog or cat, until Marie thinks she might end her life wearing a sandwich board for Jesus in downtown San Francisco.
This Presence manifests itself chiefly in an African American church in a black working-class neighborhood that appears frequently in Lamott’s writings. It is far from accidental that the movement forward and upward toward the reintegration of the disintegrated lives of the novel—principally the narrator’s—is symbolized at the end of the novel by a sermon in this church on the Crucifixion, followed by Nanny’s dream of a newborn baby taken from a coffin and handed to her as the infant calmly and alertly looks around, just taking in the world. Nanny knows who it is. The last scene, confirming the reassembling of the scattered lives, takes place at a wedding of Casey’s old school friend, who is now a Republican banker and wears a hairpiece. Like all true comedies, the novel ends in this marriage and its celebration—preceded in this case by a death and a birth to complete the cycle.
Sources for Further Study
Lamott, Anne. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. Essays on what it means to live a Christian life in the confusion and stresses of a present even more problematic that that of Lamott’s earlier nonfiction.
Lamott, Anne. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. Lamott thinks of these essays as a handbook for people trying to live faithfully against long odds. A number of them are not specifically religious.
Tennant, Agnieszka. “’Jesusy’ Anne Lamott.” Christianity Today, January 21, 2003. A sympathetic perspective on an iconoclastic and challenging writer whose radical Christianity is, perhaps surprisingly, rooted in tradition.