For almost two decades, Natalie Goldberg has worked under the shadow of her own success. Her most popular book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (1986), has sold more than one million copies and has been translated into a dozen languages. It was her first national publication and launched her career as a nationally known leader of writing workshops. Writing Down the Bones and its sequel, Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life (1990), won Goldberg thousands of acolytes among the people who would like to be writers if they could only get started. Goldberg's writing books, also including Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer's Craft (2000), have indeed freed many writers to write, but each successive volume has attracted less attention and sold fewer copies.
It may be fair to say that her books of fiction, poetry, and painting have provided pleasing glimpses of this talented artist's life for her existing fans but have attracted few new ones. In the genre of memoir, making up two of her ten published books so far, Goldberg repeats the pattern of achieving her best work first. In Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America (1993), Goldberg used her own progression—from typical suburban Jewish American child to practicing Zen Buddhist and professional writer and painter—to illuminate a path toward enlightenment and empowerment that anyone could follow. The writer drew on her experience to teach about the greater world. Although the title of her newest book, The Great Failure: A Bartender, a Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth, promises a similar exploration, ultimately the writer is speaking here only about herself, to herself.
The Great Failure is divided into three long chapters, with an introduction and epilogue. The introduction sets out the task of the book: to “write about my two fathers, my natural one and my spiritual one.” Part 1 tells the story of the bartender Benjamin Goldberg, the writer's father. As is soon made clear, the relationship between father and daughter has always been contentious. Like many children, Goldberg has taken a path that leads far away from and rejects her parents’ world. (When Sylvia, Goldberg's mother, offers a drink of water that she has specially chilled in the freezer for her sophisticated daughter, Goldberg asks instead for Perrier.) Ben and Sylvia feel abandoned and condescended to; Natalie feels unloved, belittled, and misunderstood.
Goldberg has tried to teach her parents about meditation, but they cannot understand it, and to cover his failure Ben makes jokes, which reduce Natalie to frustration and withdrawal. The situation and the mutual stubbornness is reminiscent of another book written by a bitter daughter, Judith Levine's Do You Remember Me? A Father, a Daughter, and a Search for the Self (2004). In both books, women from suburban New York, having been through therapy, try to come to terms with unloving fathers who are approaching the end of life.
Nine years before the beginning of the book, Goldberg had written her father a letter, telling him that he was “a terrible father.” She catalogued his good points (he helped her sell Girl Scout cookies, rode bikes with her, and was proud of her reading ability) and his abuses (he entered her room without knocking, teased her about her developing body, and tried to look at her in the shower). When Ben tried to phone her, she told him to respond in writing and hung up. When he wrote, saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but don’t worry. I’ll never leave you,” she avoided contact with her parents, and did not see them for three years. Finally, “determined to reconnect,” she invites them to New Mexico for a visit. It does not go well. Ben makes fun of meditation, Sylvia asks whether her daughter's accusatory letters were drug-induced, and Goldberg finds the only enjoyable moment of the visit when she takes her father to an art exhibit and triumphs in his inability to understand the art.
The monk of the book's subtitle is Katagiri Roshi, the Zen master at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center in St. Paul who helped Goldberg develop a process of using writing as a spiritual practice, as described in Goldberg's earlier memoir, Long Quiet...
(The entire section is 1753 words.)