novelist Brad Gooch stumbles into the gracelands and wastelands of contemporary spirituality. In the late 1990s he embarked on an unconventional odyssey to explore the spiritual movements of America. The result is a rich memoir about a "frequent flier pilgrim" who mixes with celebrities like Deepak Chopra as well as cloistered nuns and chanting Sufis. He finds committed, disciplined disciples alongside individuals who treat religions like self-help programs and mix rituals, prayers, and practices into a personalized stew. Gooch has a novelist's narrative skills and is able to pan back and give sweeping overviews. "We spent most of the week sitting cross-legged in large white plastic chairs or lying on blankets breathing carefully in and out, trying to slip into what Chopra called 'the gap'--the missed beat where bliss lies," he writes of a meditation retreat. "For anyone who peeked into the tent, we must have looked like we'd been knocked out by a powerful bug spray." His rich experiences in ashrams, monasteries, churches, and retreat centers are engaging as stand-alone chapters (some were the basis of magazine articles). Unfortunately, Gooch rarely ties these experiences all together. For readers who want their fingers on the pulse of American spirituality, this makes an interesting, but limited, armchair pilgrimage. --Gail Hudson
From Publishers Weekly
Gooch, a professor of English at William Paterson University, introduces his book as "close-up, detailed reporting on the social aspect of the spiritual scene in America," the subjects of which are based on his own "deep whim." They include readers of the Urantia Book, followers of Deepak Chopra and Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, communities of Trappists and Trappistines, gay churches and Jerry Falwell's interaction with them and Muslims in New York City. Each chapter is indeed detailed, with Gooch including lengthy descriptions of interiors, rituals and beliefs, as well as interviews with adherents he meets (and, in the case of the Urantia Book and Chopra, with critics as well). The book's thorough detail at times causes the narrative to lose focus, as when Gooch veers off from an interview to mention that the interviewee is the cousin of the author of Six Degrees of Separation. His own explorative "whim" also causes the narrative to ramble. For example, one chapter begins with architect Philip Johnson talking about designing the Cathedral of Hope, then minutely discusses various gay churches and leaders as well as the California and Texas cultures in which they move, and then describes a potentially confrontational encounter between Mel White and Jerry Falwell. The title itself seems to encapsulate the book's lack of focus; this is an ethnographic portrait of several religious groups, not a study of "Godtalk." However, those willing to follow the meandering trails of Gooch's detail will find an engaging portrait of at least five religious movements.
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