Showing posts with label Thomas Wolfe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Thomas Wolfe. Show all posts

Thursday, October 22, 2020


In late September we decided, spur of the moment almost, to break loose from our self-imposed Covid semi-quarantine, and rent a house overlooking the Pisgah Mountains outside Asheville, which we had visited many times before, and loved.  This time, we would not be doing our usual sightseeing, or sampling the fine restaurants there, but hunker down at an elevation of 2,000 feet looking at the distant mountains rising to 5,000 plus feet from our outdoor balcony.  There, we would sit in our rocking chairs and read, without the cacophony of politics swamping the airwaves.  I haven’t read a good book for a while and I selected 3 novels for our visit, the first being Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, which I read in college but not since.  What better place to channel Wolfe’s thoughts but in the very place he so soulfully wrote about?

My college copy was long gone, but I found one from my son’s remaining books in our home, the one he read in college 20 plus years ago.  So I dove into the book as soon as we arrived, unpacked and ordered groceries to be delivered.  Sitting there on the porch, or in the living room which had the same view, reading that novel was a special experience, and although I vaguely remembered the story, and I knew quite a bit about Wolfe from my other readings, and we twice visited his mother’s boarding house in Asheville which is now a museum, I did not remember the details of the novel and was almost shocked by the numerous and casual derogatory references to blacks and Jews.  What did I think about those passages when I first read the novel more than 50 years ago?  Or was that simply more acceptable in those days?  As a boy from New York City, I never felt the way young Eugene Gant and his friends did, but wasn’t I nonplussed by the language and the overt racism?  If I wasn’t then, I admit I found them jarring now.

Wolfe, however, wrote what he witnessed, without judgement.  This is the way people thought, particularly in the western Carolinas.  It was just a part of life.  I felt this over and over again rereading the novel.  Some of the language relating to that theme was just downright painful.

I made an attempt to put that disturbing language aside, as this is, indeed, the great American novel, just as Wolfe intended.  Its sprawling themes and description of a brilliant young writer coming of age is peerless.  The prose is potent and poetic.  Eugene Gant is tested, time and time again, only to rise like the Phoenix, break loose the chains of childhood and set course towards his destiny.  Only Wolfe could write these words of unmitigated optimism and the raw youth of genius:

Eugene was untroubled by thought of a goal.  He was made with such ecstasy as he had never known. He was a centaur, moon-eyed and wild of mane, torn apart with hunger for the golden world. He became at times almost incapable of coherent speech. While talking with people, he would whinny suddenly into their startled faces, and leap away, his face contorted with an idiot joy. He would hurl himself squealing through the streets and along the paths, touched with the ecstasy of a thousand unspoken desires. The world lay before him for his picking-full of opulent cities, golden vintages, glorious triumphs, lovely women, full of a thousand unmet and magnificent possibilities. Nothing was dull or tarnished. The strange enchanted coasts were unvisited. He was young and he could never die.

Can you imagine Wolfe’s euphoria when he wrote this, and I wonder mine reading it the first time almost the same age as when he wrote those words?  Yes, I was going out into the world to make my own way, no real goals, but to live, live, live.  I could never die; he could never die. And here I am, becoming an old man (although some would argue, I already am).



Before I finished the novel I was snapped out of the dream of youth by a startling development in our lives.  Ann and I had a sudden offer to buy our house.  For years we had considered this, even putting it on the market before Covid made us take it off.  I’ve always said that once we are out of boating, and this last summer that became a reality, it would be time to leave the waterway, and downsize to a gated community where some responsibilities are assumed by the association.  Without getting into details regarding timing, where we’re going (locally), etc., we accepted the offer and found a house in the community we were interested moving into.  What is the saying?  Watch what you wish for?  This new house has come with its own set of problems, ones we’ve addressed over the years in the house we’re leaving.  I feel our present home is almost an extension of myself; I am so sensitive to anything out of place, such as an unexplained sound that might require maintenance. 

Our home is set up for our own unique life styles.  For me it’s writing and playing the piano, neither of which I’ve been able to do to any great extent during all this turmoil.  I’m forcing myself to write this entry, before I forget our respite in the Asheville area.  We came back early because of these real estate transactions and now we are in the thick of it, including preparing to move, a four day process even though it is fairly local.

One does not fully appreciate the weight of the accumulated “stuff” one gathers over two decades, especially when a house has so much storage.  When in doubt, keep!  Stuff owns you and now we are paying the price, not only a stiff one because of the totality of “things” but given our age and during such a dangerous time.  It’s all sinking in now and we along with the realization.  And there is no turning back.

So for the next two months, our life is really not our own and while we will make our best efforts to socially distance and mask up for all the movers, vendors, agents, etc. we must see during this period, we’re hoping to make it through the tunnel without the virus.  This may be my last entry for a while with the exception – hopefully -- of a celebratory one after the election.  An America without Trump might even have me singing Eugene Gant’s optimism, not of youth of course, but of a future of normalcy, less strident dialogue, people coming together, our country rejoining the world community.

In the meantime, the profound words of Carl Sandburg resonate:  Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Conroy’s Final Memoir?

This is the third “non- fiction” book I’ve read by Pat Conroy.  I put that in quotation marks as the line separating his novels and his memoirs of his youth at the Citadel (My Losing Season), the influence of his mother and teachers on his maturation as a writer (My Reading Life), and now, finally, this tortured history of his entire family (The Death of Santini) completes the trilogy of his autobiographical works.   His memoirs are the building blocks of his fiction.  And that is not a criticism, but a fact.  For some writers it may be more subliminal, but where else does a writer derive his/her deepest experiences other than those lived?  That is what makes moving, meaningful literature, theatre, paintings, you name the art.

I have a profound respect for Conroy’s writing ability.  It flows, whether it’s memoir or fiction.  This particular work, I would think, puts his life story to bed, or one hopes so.  As he movingly puts it at the onset …in the myth I’m sharing I know that I was born to be the recording angel of my parents’ dangerous love.  Their damaged children are past middle age now, but the residues of their fury still torture each of us…Our parents lit us up like brandy in a skillet.  They tormented us in their own flawed, wanton love of each other.  This is the telling of my parents’ love story – I shall try to write the truth of it as best I can.  I’d like to be rid of it forever, because it’s hunted me down like some foul-breathed hyena since childhood.

Throughout this angst-ridden work I hear the refrains of John Bradshaw.  I’ve met Bradshaw.  I wish Conroy had, although he has himself has gone through years and years of therapy.  Bradshaw puts his case very clearly in his seminal work The Family – the family is a system which shapes our lives and survival in a dysfunctional family involves creating a false self, playing a role – getting typecast so to speak – and it is multigenerational. 

It was not until Conroy wrote The Great Santini at the age of 30 that he first heard the phrase “dysfunctional family:”  Because I had studied the biography of Thomas Wolfe with such meticulous attention, I thought I knew all the pitfalls of and fly traps into which I could fall by writing on such an incendiary subject as my own family.  When I began to write the book, I had never heard the phrase “dysfunctional family.”  Since the book came out, that phrase has traveled with me as though a wood tick has attached itself to my armpit forever…My portrait of my father was so venomous and unforgiving that I had to pull back from the outraged narrative voice and eventually decide to put the book into third person. But even then, the words flowed like molten steel instead of language.

In parts of this blog I’ve revealed some of my own family sicknesses, a rageaholic mother and a passive father, sort of the opposite of Conroy but we share some of the same burdens.  And as the oldest in the family of many siblings, Conroy bears the brunt and he is trying to excise those demons in his memoirs and fiction.

It was not until after he had a physical confrontation with his father physically that the impact of multigenerational family sickness dawned on him.  His father had left Conroy’s house drunk after being plummeted by his son.  It suddenly dawned on Conroy that his father had no business driving a car in that condition and ran down the street to find the car – which he did with his father passed out in the driver’s seat. He studied his father’s face. I realized I would always be serving a life sentence without parole because of the unpardonable cruelty of this one man. Now on this night, my father had proffered his final gift to me – because I had kicked him across the lawn and beat him with my fists, I sat studying him at my leisure, deep in thought on the first night I ever thought of myself earning my natural birthright as a violent man.  I was devastated.  All during my childhood, I had sworn that I would never be a think like him, and here before me, drunken and beaten, was living proof that I was the spitting image of Don Conroy.

As Tolstoy posited “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  I’ve heard of such families (the happy ones), although I’ve rarely met one without some secret lurking.  I think a more benign way of putting it is that some families get along better than others, but all families have their crucibles to bear.  I like Conroy’s way of putting it:  I don’t believe in happy families.  A family is too frail a vessel to contain the risks of all the warring impulses expressed when such a group meets on common ground.  If a family gathers in harmony for a reunion, everyone in attendance will know the entryways and exits have been mined with improvised explosive devices.  The crimes of a father or the carelessness of a mother can defile the taste of oyster dressing and giblet gravy on the brightest Thanksgiving Day….The pretense of being festive at these events is both crushing and debilitating to me…My parents taught me many things, but they never taught me a thing about faking joy…The happy family is one of the treasured romances of the American epic, something akin to the opening of the West.  Holidays brought out the worst in my own family, hopes ridding high, with no way of scaling those walls of expectations.

Much of the book is devoted to the ironic reconciliation with his father.  I say “ironic” as it was through the publication (and ultimately the making of the movie) of The Great Santini, the main character, "Bull" Meecham being based on his father, that a reconciliation becomes possible.  It was not an attractive portrait, so much based on Don Conroy’s incendiary persona.  Upon publication -- as in the case of Conroy’s literary hero Thomas Wolfe when his autobiographical Look Homeward Angel was published -- there was an upheaval in the family.  But eventually Don Conroy became proud to be known as the “Great Santini,” talking down the unflattering parts as being due to his son’s “over imagination” and playing up the heroic parts.  To Pat Conroy’s credit he accepted this part of the reconciliatory bargain and even allowed his father to participate in book signings, his father becoming sort of a “wingman” to Pat for the rest of his life on those occasions. 

The deaths of his mother (who had divorced his father years earlier) and then the Great Santini himself are movingly described by Conroy.  The affect the family dynamics had on the siblings and particularly his estrangement from his sister Carol Ann (“her talismanic powers over me extended into the deepest realms of self”) and the suicide of his youngest brother (“Tom was born to hurt”) are detailed.  His beautiful eulogy to his father is appended at the end of the book.  

Towards the end of his father’s life, we began a year of submitting to Dad’s whims as he made a final tour of the most significant places in his life.  He planned visits to every person he’d ever considered a friend, paying special attention to my daughters, who had worshiped him ever since they had learned to talk…A hundred new moons would appear in my horizon whenever my daughters had a child.  Because of fate, love was a million-footed thing, and so was hatred.  My father was behind the wheel of his car, urging it down the peripheries of blue highways, and he carried what was killing him as an honored guest in his liver.  He connected himself to Chicago, to Atlanta, and the surprising realm of Beaufort, where his children had planted their own flags of belonging and home.

Finally the end of this cathartic work, Conroy saying “I will not write about you again” to his now dead parents, He also has found peace in his marriage to Cassandra King, a novelist as well.  And they have settled in the low country of Beaufort, a place he loves, a place Conroy can call home in spite of being an army brat and having moved all over God’s creation. I hope for no more non-fiction from Conroy as he promises.  Yes, any future novel he may write may be steeped in the roots of his own life, but that is how it should be.  The book’s dedication is lovingly made to his all his brothers and sisters, a sure sign of healing.

It’s all out there now, other than the parts which, for whatever reasons, he has chosen to keep private.  He again makes reference to his estranged daughter Susannah (he dedicated My Reading Life to her), this time in the Acknowledgments, “…the door is always open and so is my heart.”  But that obviously painful story essentially remains untold.  He is such a powerful, lyrical writer, and now that his memoirs have been put to bed, perhaps he’ll feel freer in future fiction. 

Bob Next to Wolfe’s Shoes
Thomas Wolfe is Conroy’s spiritual literary mentor, both southerners, poetic writers, embracing family history as fiction.  My review of My Reading Life includes a description of a chapter from that book entitled "A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe" as well as a number of photographs of Wolfe’s “Old Kentucky Home” in Asheville, NC.  

 We have visited that home, ultimately a boarding house managed by Wolfe’s mother, now a museum, a few times and felt moved and privileged.  I’m sure Conroy felt the same way when he has been there.  And he has the right stuff to fill Wolfe’s enormous shoes, which were bronzed and are part of the sidewalk outside the “Old Kentucky Home.” 

I might also note that I read the hardcover edition of The Death of Santini, beautifully produced by the Nan A. Talese imprint of Doubleday, printed on a cream shade deckle edge paper, and set in the very popular, easy to read Caslon typeface.  It’s hard (for me) to imagine reading this on a Kindle.  Holding the book itself when reading such a moving memoir is a more tactile, spiritual experience.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Irene and Jonathan Tropper

We are hunkered down in a hotel awaiting Hurricane Irene, our boat secured to the best of our ability. So we wait, with our flashlights (as power will inevitably be lost) and enough bread, and peanut butter and jelly to outlast the storm. The storm surge will be the key to our boat’s survival, a sickening feeling having to wait out the next two days and hoping we can return to find minimal damage when the storm finally passes. Meanwhile, it is time to complete an entry concerning Jonathan Tropper which I had started to write before Irene dictated the turmoil of preparing for the storm.

I’m becoming a Jonathan Tropper admirer, a clever and talented writer, with a unique voice, who may deserve to join the company of some of my favorite contemporary American novelists, Richard Russo, Anne Tyler, Russell Banks, Richard Ford, John Irving, E.L. Doctorow, Pat Conroy, and Jonathan Franzen, Ever since John Updike died and as Philip Roth ages, I worry about their understudies, who might fill the shoes of authors dedicated to the craft of writing and the chronicling of American life and The Dream.

I had just finished Russell Bank’s The Reserve, a beautifully written novel but humorless and needed a “pick me up” so I returned to Tropper, having liked his Everything Changes, and was curious whether one of his earlier ones would measure up. I chose The Book of Joe with some hesitancy as it seemed to have all its cultural references to the 1980s, where part of the novel is set, the main characters being in high school and juxtaposed to the same ones today. This is my younger son’s generation, not mine. I’m closer to Updike and Roth’s age, no doubt one of the reasons their writing so resonates with me.

But Tropper deals with such universal truths they transcend generational provincialism, certainly the mark of a good writer. My high school years of the 1950s had the same raw pulsating teenage angst, sexual urgency, and social vulnerability, the very ones portrayed by Tropper at Bush Falls High, their Cougar basketball players revered, and everyone else in a subordinate role. Teenagers can be the most sadistic humans on the face of the earth, something Tropper well understands.

Events concerning my 50th high school reunion brought home the fact that the caste system had hardly changed. It was amazing to me that the long bridge of 50 years hardly mattered. It was back to the clickish high school years as if no time had passed at all.

And Tropper poignantly captures this feeling in The Book of Joe, using Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel experience as a very loose outline. Wolfe’s novel outraged the residents of Asheville and had Wolfe returned (actually, there is a fictionalized version of his return written by Asheville native and playwright Sandra Mason which we saw several years ago in Asheville), he, too, would have been vilified as is Tropper’s Joe Goffman who leaves the small fictional town of Bush Falls, CT, somewhere north of New Haven. He writes a novel about the town and it becomes a sensational best-seller, thanks in part to his agent. He tells all in thinly veiled fiction, even his most private sexual fantasies concerning his best friend’s mother. He finally returns 17 years later as his father has had a stroke and he now has to confront his family and former friends and high school hell raisers, the love of his life, and even the mother about whom he had fantasized.

Tropper writes terrifically believable dialogue and it is not surprising that he is also a screenwriter and a couple of his novels are in the process of being adapted for the screen. The Book of Joe is a fast read, poignantly tragicomic. Sometimes his writing reminds me of Joseph Heller’s special gift for ironic humor.

I was surprised by how engaged I was in the world of this thirty-something protagonist, a world more inhabited by my sons, but universal truths never change.