The Koran Interpreted (translated by A. J. Arberry) (1996. Touchstone. ISBN 9780684825076)
As with my reading of The Book of Mormon, this is a review of the literary merit of one of mankind’s most beloved scriptural texts, The Koran. It is not my attempt to critique or disassemble the theology of Islam: I will leave that to the scholars. I am just an average, ordinary American, raised Christian amongst other Christians and a smattering of Jews and nonbelievers, who is trying to understand the basic tenets of a faith that underpins many of the lives, cultures, and social orders of the latest immigrants to the United States. So take what I observe and write here in the spirit in which it is written: as a critic of the language, writing, and structure of The Koran, not as a criticism of The Book’s core beliefs.
First, the repetition. Gehenna, a Biblical valley that appears in Hebrew scripture, is referenced, by one account, more than 70 times in The Koran. I gave up counting how many times the terms “chastisement” (as in “the unbelievers will suffer a great chastisement”) and “punishment” appear within the suras (chapters) of the book. This constant refrain of salvation and damnation, the repetitiveness of the text, may well, when read aloud in a mosque or recited by heart at prayer, reinforce the central themes of the second largest religion in the world. (One source has Christianity as the largest at 33% with Islam second at 21% of the world’s population; USA Today predicts that by 2070, Islam will supplant Christianity as the world’s largest faith community.) But when read as a complete text, from beginning to end, this consistency becomes redundant. I found this repetitiveness reminiscent of the overly repeated refrains found in The Book of Mormon, though, to be fair, The Messenger’s collection of revelations and scripture precedes Joseph Smith’s discovery by 1,200 years, making The Koran a likely source of inspiration for the Mormon prophet’s revelations. One thing that sets The Koran apart from Smith’s retelling of the contents of the golden plates is the language. Whereas Smith, an uneducated and illiterate religious searcher, relied upon a tone and tenor that was pedestrian and ordinary in its prose, The Messenger’s presentation of the Eternal Book is, despite also coming from an oral tradition, far more polished and, in some suras, reaches the poetry of The Bible:
Hast thou seen him who lies to the Doom? That is he who repulses the orphan and urges not the feeding of the needy. So woe to those that pray and are heedless of their prayers, to those who make display and refuse charity.
This is not an easy text to read. And I am certain that if I was privileged to hear the verses and suras recited in their original Arabic, there would be a flow, a magic to the words that transcends even the best English translation of this compilation of revelations from the Divine. But even in English, The Book displays moments of linguistic clarity and beauty; and, departing from my initial premise (that I would not delve into theology) much of what radical Islam is preaching and acting upon (jihad being raised against children, women, the old, and the infirm in the name of God) is nowhere to be found in this book. Certainly, just as with Judaism and Christianity, there are facets of a faith that come from customs and practices created over millennia of observance, some of which may support suicide bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, and the murder of noncombatants or captured combatants. But I did not, in my time with The Koran, find those practices ingrained in the spiritual message of this book. As a Christian, I may be troubled that The Messenger defines Christ not as God embodied on Earth, but as a mortal prophet akin to Moses and Noah. In addition, there is a theme of evangelism to the text; the need to convert unbelievers to The Book that mirrors Paul’s exhortations to conversion in the New Testament. But The Koran incorporates both Jews and Christians into a larger, monotheistic framework of faith, considering those religious bodies to also be People of the Book. Perhaps the world would be a better, calmer place if Jews and Christians extended the same courtesy to Muslims.
Reading The Koran was not easy but it was enlightening and, given the world we live in, essential for non-Muslims to at least attempt.
4 stars out of 5. The book is, as indicated, rated for literary merit, not its spiritual content.
Listener in the Snow by Tim Jollymore (2013. Finns Way Books. 978-0-9914763-0-5)
Readers who enjoy Louise Erdich’s or Linda LeGarde Grover’s or Sherman Alexey’s brand of native mysticism wrapped within a fictional tale will enjoy this new novel by Cloquet, Minnesota native Tim Jollymore. Interwoven stories of the first-person narrator, Tatty, a mixed race Mi’Maq whose wife Mary is of Ojibwe lineage, and three legendary trips north from Tatty’s home in the States; first, for his father’s funeral; second, to bring his mother home to die in Canada; and third, to northern Minnesota to assist Mary in the birthing of her young cousin’s twin girls, all intersect in ways that are strange, enlightening, frightening, and legendary. Jollymore is a skilled storyteller and wordsmith, though, from time to time, the eloquence of his prose might, at least in this reader’s humble opinion, slow down the intensity of the action driving the plot. Still, there are so many well crafted passages and scenes throughout this flight of fancy intermixed with adventure and emotive recollection that one hardly notices the interruption of the storyline. Here’s an example one of Jollymore’s better pieces of narrative:
After the expansive, dazzling snow burning under the cloudless sky, the inside of the cabin was close and nearly black. The fireplace flame, whose smoke I had seen from above, was the first thing to reveal itself to my sun-glazed eyes. Then appeared the fainter glows of the windows, where drifts had been partially flung back by Danny’s shovel-work. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a white-draped bassinet standing away from the fireplace. Over this hovered a tiny silhouetted figure signing words I could not make out.
There are many memorable characters inhabiting Jollymore’s fictional story; from the enigmatically strong and defiant Mary, to the reclusive Tiny, to the aging, inherently wise Granny-the old woman who helps Tatty understand the visions he is plagued by. Each one is well crafted and unique. One criticism of the book would be that, for a work this polished, I found a few typos and/or missing words. These are rare occurrences, to be sure, and something my own work, also being self-published, has suffered from as well. There is also something unsettling about the climatic scene involving Roscoe and the ice flow. I won’t spoil the ending for you because this is a book that, if you have an interest in Native American fiction, you should read: Perhaps as a member of a book club to spawn discussion regarding the storytelling, the accuracy of the tale’s depiction of Native American life in the 21st century, and a host of other topics. Despite these minor flaws, I found the characters and the story memorable and well worth the time.
4 stars out of 5. A good novel for a book club to pick up, read, and discuss.
Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (2012. Vintage Anchor (Canada). ISBN978-0-7710-5704-5)
I was in Thunder Bay, Ontario this summer for a Finnish festival. I was riding around with my host, Ron Harpel, and stopped in at Chapter’s, the Canadian equivalent of Barnes and Noble, looking for a book to read. My intention was to buy Circus at the Edge of the Earth by my friend and internationally known Thunder Bay author, Charlie Wilkins. But alas, the largest bookstore chain in Canada did not have a single Wilkins title in stock, much less his first memoir. I settled for Such a Long Journey even though I’d not heard of the book’s author, Rohinton Mistry, because of the back jacket blurbs. I wasn’t disappointed.
The novel is well written in a style that reminds me, due to its reliance on mysticism and ritual, of Native American fiction (think Erdrich or Alexie or Grover). Mistry sometimes wanders a bit off the beaten path, tossing in asides and “howevers” that distract from the overarching plot but, in the end, the clarity of the author’s storytelling brings the plot back into view. Throughout the effort, Mistry carefully and adeptly gives us snippets of Indian culture, history, and Zoroastrian practices (the main character, Gustaf Noble, is of that religious minority; learn more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoroastrianism) so that, as we are entertained by the fictional story, we learn a bit about one of the largest nations on earth and one of it’s least examined religions. Here’s a snippet that portrays living in a mosquito infested slum and the protagonist’s constant battle to keep his family safe from pestilence and vermin:
“Perfect, said Gustav, clearing the dining-table. He placed the round shallow dish under the bulb and filled it with water. When the surface grew still, the light bulb’s reflection steadied and shone brightly, tantalizingly, under water. Then the mosquitoes started to dive in. One by one, abandoning the real bulb, they plunged unswervingly suicidal in their attempts to reach the aqueous, insubstantial light. Somehow it was a greater attraction than the one hanging from the ceiling.”
My only criticism of this novel is that, as concise and crisp as the writing is, I was ready for more revelatory prose surrounding Prime Minister Gandhi (Indira) and the alleged corruption in her administration which is an almost unspoken accusation behind much of the action and plot involving Gustav and other characters, major and minor, in the book. Then too, the friction between Noble and his eldest child, Sohrab, while eventually resolved, could have used a bit more time on the stage. But over all, this is a good, good read. Not, as proclaimed, on the jacket, a great novel but one that surely whets the appetite to read more Mistrys (pun intended!).
4 stars out of 5.
The Sky Watched by Linda LeGarde Grover (2015. Red Mountain Press. ISBN9780990804772)
Speak English. Forget the language of your grandparents. It is dead. Forget their teachings. They are ignorant and unGodly. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Indians are not clean. Your mother did not teach you to be clean.
(from “Everything You Need to Know in Life You’ll Learn at Boarding School”)
Indian boarding schools. Creation myths. Cultural references. Family. These are the compass points of a new poetry collection by Duluth poet and author, Linda LeGarde Grover. A confession. I grew up with Linda’s siblings. Of the 14 LeGarde children, I knew four of them fairly well before age thirty: Nancy, two years older than me; Jerry, a year ahead of me in school; Susie, a classmate at Lincoln Jr. High and Denfeld H.S., and Jimmy, who played shortstop on my law firm’s softball team. I’ve also had the pleasure in my later years of spending time with Linda at book signings and other writerly events. So take this review for what it is: opinion tainted by familiarity. That having been said, if these poems of Ojibwe life and dreams and spirituality weren’t damn good, well, I’d beg off and tell Ms. LeGarde I didn’t have the time to review this book. But that’s not the case.
There’s a Zen-like quality to LeGarde’s verse and prose poems, the wrapping of myth into history into sadness into joy that reminds me of the Finnish epic saga, The Kalevala. Though the mysticism that is so often the cornerstone of Native American contemporary writing (think Erdrich or Northrup or Alexie) may be found in some of these poems, front and center, LeGarde isn’t heavy handed in applying aboriginal beliefs and magic to her remembrances. Instead, the connections between spirit and flesh, reality and fantasy, are more subtle, less onerous for non-Native readers, allowing us access to a world that, while seemingly shrinking due to the monolithic advance of American culture, continues on beneath the fabric of everyday life. LeGarde’s periodic reflections of being raised in the non-Indian world while being taught the “old ways” at home and within her family, the clash of cultures being omnipresent and somewhat daunting, rise from the page, easily accessible but poignant.
Our little sister is the only blond in our family. As children we were fascinated by her coloring, her hair that lightened to an ice frost in the summer, her cheeks that bloomed with a red fire in the winter. Winters she became the sun, summers the moon.
(from “Mary Susan”)
On the critical side, a few of LeGarde’s poems left me scratching my head as I tried to decipher their meaning or simply did not rise to the level of the rest of the collection. But these minor deviations in authorial quality are momentary, fleeting, and rare. What one is left with, after having spent time with Ms. LeGarde, her family, her traditions, her ancestors, is a feeling of love. And hope. And respect.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. Read a poem or two each evening before bed. You won’t be disappointed!
Dalva by Jim Harrison (1988. Washington Square Press. ISBN 978-0-671-74067-2
“Jim Harrison’s Dalva is the story of a remarkable modern woman’s search for her son…”
That’s the cover blurb that grabbed my attention and compelled me to buy this novel at Books on Broadway, a lovely little bookstore in downtown Williston, ND. I’ve read Harrison before and both loved and been less than excited about his work (Legends of the Fall-big thumbs’ up; True North-not so much) but because the recently departed author hailed from two places I thoroughly love, UP Michigan and Montana, I figured this book, given the impressive blurbs, would make for an interesting and engaging summer read. I got the interesting. Engaging? That fell by the wayside as I plowed through Harrison’s prose. Here’s why.
I applaud any male author’s willingness to tackle the voice of a woman in the first person in fiction. There are so many opportunities to stumble and fall, to marginalize the character by inserting male sexuality, male language, and male foibles into the writing, that, well, when an author of Harrison’s stature makes the attempt, takes such a risk, I stand up and take notice. Having tackled this quirky task myself (Esther’s Race), I have sympathy for males writing in the female voice and vice versa. And, for the most part, Harrison handles the difficulties of putting on a woman’s skin, getting into the female mind, with adroitness. That makes the first part of the tale, told in Dalva’s voice, very readable and believable. Sure, the sexuality of the main character seems so feckless and free and without thought of consequence, some readers might argue that Harrison is casting male sexuality onto the female persona. But making that assumption or assertion, I think, misses that there are indeed intrepidly sexual females in the world, women whose carnal appetites equal those of men. So the fact that Dalva has a child early on out-of-wedlock and continues on a path that includes trysts and affairs and nary a serious relationship, well, that’s the free spirit of the character and it’s solidly valid. So it’s not Dalva’s lust or affection or love of flesh that stands out as an issue for me. Rather, it is the fact that, having established a strong, interesting woman as his lead actor, Harrison suddenly changes up the game and gives us an insipidly weak and uninteresting male character, Michael, a sniveling, milquetoast thirty-something (a decade younger than his sometime lover, Dalva, which women readers will likely applaud!) to move the story forward. The author compounds this unacceptable slight-of-hand, this bait and switch, by giving Michael center stage for the second part of the story. Even though part 1, featuring Dalva, and part 2, featuring Michael, are equal in length, I found the second portion of the tale far more labored and uninteresting. My take. Accept it or reject it as you like.
Dalva reappears for the concluding section of the book, “Going Home” and the lives of the two main characters weave back and forth, with other, supporting actors making appearances to enhance the plot. But the narrative, as structured throughout the volume, presents challenges. What do I mean? First, the blurb proclaiming that this is a story about a mother finding her son, a child she gave away as an infant, is pure fallacy. Oh, sure, the birthing and giving up and lamenting are all there on the page. But that segment of the story is so defuse, so subtle that proclaiming, as the blurbist did, that the adoption and search scenario is a main theme of the book is a crock. There’s little significance of the “lost child” narrative to the remainder of the book’s story arc. It simply failed to connect, at least with me. Additionally, the unchaptered structure of the novel, while not anywhere as difficult as reading Joyce, is a bit off putting. And finally, there is this. The ending so confused me, well, I won’t spoil it for you if you decide to wade into this book, but I’m still scratching my head as to how and why it occurred.
Harrison is an American icon. Poet, essayist, novelist, and teacher, Jim Harrison deserves, on the strength of his other work, to be recognized as an American treasure. But despite the proclamations on the jacket of this book, I would not place Dalva at the top of the list of Jim Harrison works that require reading.
3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy by Jonathan Clements (2009. Haus. ISBN 978-907822-57-5)
As a non-Finn interested in Finns, I’m always looking to learn more about the history and culture of this fascinating people. When I was working on my second historical novel involving the Finns, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, Carl Gustav Mannerheim loomed large. That book is set during the most turbulent of times for Finland: the Winter War, the Continuation War, and the Lapland War (or, as those of us outside Finland know the period, WW II). Though Mannerheim was already a prominent figure in Finnish history by the time the U.S.S.R. attacked Finland in 1939, having led the White (conservative) forces to victory in the Finnish War of Independence against the Reds (communists) in 1918, and having served a lengthy career prior to that as a soldier and spy for the Russian Czar (Russia having political control of Finland until 1917, when the Finns threw off the mantle of occupation), it was his brilliant strategy in defending the tiny Finnish lion against the Soviet bear in 1939 that caught the world’s attention. I knew much of Mannerheim’s involvement in the later period from my research. What I didn’t know was the backstory, the details of his service in the Russian military, his herculean trip to China as a Russian agent, and his close personal ties to the doomed Nicholas II.
If you read the reviews of this book on Amazon or Goodreads, you’ll find a smattering of complaints that Clements spends too much time re-telling the early years, too many pages spent describing Mannerheim’s time as a Russian cavalry officer and Russian spy in the Orient. It’s true that the author devotes cursory time exploring the one-day president and field marshal’s exploits during the Finnish War of Independence and WW II. And not much more than that detailing the precarious position Mannerheim found his nation in during WW II as a “co-belligerent” of Nazi Germany. But these aren’t serious defects in my view. Rather, I read this book as it was written: as a very simple, straightforward introduction to a complex and brilliant man’s career in public service. Clement’s scholarship isn’t an exhaustive exploration of Mannerheim or his life and times. It is a Cliff Notes version of the man’s story and it’s one that serves as a valuable first read about the man voted the most honored and famous Finn in his nation’s young history.
The writing is crisp (there are a few typos, which, since when I find them in my books, I cringe, made me smile!) and the plotting is concise. I found the book, while not memorable, a steady, honest read.
4 stars out of 5. An invaluable first step in understanding Carl Gustav Mannerheim.
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (2012. Mariner. ISBN 9780547737362)
Heralded by many as an “instant classic” when it was released in its original Danish, We, the Drowned is a worthwhile read. But. And here’s the caveat I would assert: it is not Denmark’s Anna Karenina or Grapes of Wrath or some such monumental work that defines a nation, a culture. No, We has more in common with Moby Dick, a novel many consider to be an American icon but one which, upon reading today, seems bogged down by page upon page of filler; fact interspersed with great narrative and descriptions of life at sea on a whaling ship tied to one mad man’s pursuit of infamy. Jensen’s prose, as translated, is honest, concise, and weightily dark, as one would expect from a Scandinavian author. And there are memorable characters crossing from one generation to another who drive the plot: a fictional history of the island of Marstal, a seafaring piece of land that harbored Danish sailing vessels, ships that sailed to every corner of the Earth in service of commerce.
As in every northern European novel, there are fantastic tales (Laurids, who is saved by his heavy boots as he ascends towards heaven on the business end of an explosion, is but one example of such a character), foreboding, death, pestilence, and evil. That’s one of the difficulties with this book: there is very little light or redemption or kindness or love expressed by any of the individuals who populate the tale. Sex isn’t romantic. Courtship isn’t kind or gentle or devoted. Cruelty and harshness abound. But the writing is succinct and direct, in a style that serves the story well. An example:
No one in our town has such a thing as privacy. There’s always an eye watching, an ear cocked. Each and every one of us generates a whole archive of talk. Your slightest offhand remark takes on the weight of a lengthy newspaper commentary. A furtive glance is instantly returned and pinned on its owner. We’re always coming up with new names for one another. A nickname’s a way of stating that no one belongs to himself…
Now, my wife will be the first to tell you that I love dark. Bleak could be my middle name. But 675 pages of small print of consistent, constant pain, suffering, and death tends, without some light, to be a bit much. Then too, the author’s choice of changing, without warning, from third person narrative (“they”) to first person (“we” or “I”), while perhaps valuable to the author’s intention of making the collective souls of Marstal a character in the story (the community having one, unified voice), was something I found disruptive to the story’s flow. And there’s the ending and the coincidences that align in the last one hundred pages of the tale that cut into the suspension of disbelief necessary in any work of fiction. I won’t ruin the book by revealing just what happens other than to say I was not enthralled with the ending. The book’s coda seemed far too predictable and pat. But then, perhaps professional envy is hurting my critical eye. After all, We has been translated across the globe whereas my two Finn novels, similar in genre to this work, remain largely undiscovered beyond the shores of my beloved Lake Superior. I hope the green eyed monster didn’t interfere with my reading of this novel. I enjoyed it. Just as not as much as predicted.
4 stars out of 5. Not The Old Man and the Sea but a solid read if you wish to learn more about Denmark and its nautical roots.
Beyond the Hundreth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and Second Opening of the West by Wallace Stegner (1992. Penguin. ISBN 9780140159943)
William Gilpin, a 19th century promoter of the settlement of the American West, is cast early on in this biography by great fiction writer Wallace Stegner (The Angle of Repose) as the fool, as the comedic foil to the steadfast, dedicated, determined teacher-turned explorer/ethnologist, Major John Wesley Powell:
If William Gilpin was enthusiastically part of his time, yapping in the van of the continentally confident, Major John Wesley Powell was just as surely working against the current of popular optimism in the policies he developed, and decades ahead of it in his vision. It was to be his distinction and in a way his misfortune that in an age of the wildest emotionalism and nationalistic fervor he operated on common sense, had faith in facts, and believed in system.
The major revelation that Powell’s journeys down the Colorado and through the Grand Canyon, to include exploration of the surrounding streams, rivers, creeks, buttes, mountains, and bluffs brought to the American public and the scientific community is this: The line being tossed to the frenzied schools of would-be Californians, Coloradians, Wyomingites, Arizonians, and Dakotans, that the West was a place of vast mineral resources, open land, tillable soil, and timber was only partly true. What, in Powell’s humble estimation, Gilpin and the other “boomers” left out was this: The vast majority of the American West between the Mississippi and the Rockies was arid and nearly impossible to farm. Water was the resource, not gold or silver or coal or timber, that would dictate how and where the West should be settled. It was Powell’s understanding of the ecological fragility of the vast plains, canyon lands, deserts, foothills, and mountains, and the necessity of protecting water for human consumption, that would drive American civilization beyond the 100th meridian.
To this end, Powell, as depicted by Stegner, worked his one-armed slender frame to the bone for nearly forty years of travel, research, and Congressional politicking, always begging and shucking and jiving for financial assistance to back his efforts. When, at the height of his powers, he was given the reigns of both the US Geological Survey, the first consolidated effort to map the entirety of the continental US, and also control of the Irrigation Survey-the bureau that was designated by Congress to set water rights and policies for the arid West-he urged Washington to adopt a socialistic view of water and water rights. Powell’s singular vision, that water in the American West was a resource that needed careful planning and protection, to include the establishment of an elaborate reservoir system to store the snow melt waters of the Colorado and other major Western rivers during the spring for the heat and dry months of the summer (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Powell) ) eventually came to fruition but not without the downfall of its promoter. In the end, Powell’s push for communal farming and water use, which included a ban on new settlement and development while his surveys were being completed (much to the chagrin of Senators and Congressmen from the affected states), was his demise. But Major Powell’s careful research and study of the natural world in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, including the detailed analysis and categorization of the indigenous people, their languages and cultures, was the work of dedication and tenacity that no politician could defeat.
I picked this book up at the gift shop on the south rim of the Grand Canyon because I believed it simply chronicled Powell’s desperate and dangerous rafting trips down the Colorado. But that was a mistake: This book, written by one of the 20th century’s best American fiction writers, is so much more than an adventure story. It is, as the wild fires rip through our beloved West, a prophecy of things that have come to pass. I don’t think it’s difficult to decipher what Powell might think, looking down from the heights of heaven, to see Phoenix and Las Vegas and Denver using potable water to green up lawns and golf courses.
4 and 1/2 stars. A must read for anyone concerned about the future of development in the West.
…swift, bright, drift… by Diane Jarpvenpa (2016. Red Dragonfly Press. ISBN 9781937693831)
There is is,
hanging from the top
of a living room painting
like a dogwood pod
or an old dried-up fig.
So begins Twin Cities singer/songwriter and whimsical poem, “Holding On”, a piece about a misplaced, solitary bat that enthralled me. My favorite line in swift, bright, drift is included in this poem:
A changling in its perfect frailty…
Stunningly simple and yet, so descriptive. So unlike my prose, where words beget words beget descriptions that sometimes beget redundancy and confusion. Here. there is sparse clarity, the poet setting forth scenes and emotions without extraneous verbiage. This is not to say that these simple poems channel verses written during childhood; little bundles of word play wrapped in neatly rhyming couplets. Rather, as demonstrated above, Ms. Jarvenpa (known as Ms. Jarvi when performing music) asks us to suspend our disbelief and walk with her through cosmopolitan backyards and along the banks of wilderness streams as she narrates.
Broken into three short sections, a half-dozen poems or so in each section, I read swift, bright, drift twice, not because the poetry is difficult but because I knew I’d likely missed something, some hint of the poet’s intuitive love for place, family, and nature. My only criticism is that this volume feels truncated. But then again, due to its size, this slender book is one a reader can revisit at his or her leisure, carefully examining the cut of each wordsmithed gem along the way.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe (2006. Scribner. ISBN 9780743297318)
Time for a confession. I have always confused the Thomas Wolfe, renowned contemporary of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Stein with the other Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities) who was born seven years before the author of Look Homeward, Angel died of miliary tuberculosis of the brain. OK. So I admit I’m no literary scholar. Cut me some slack already. Still, I love to read and having never read either Wolfe, I thought I’d start with the more senior of the pairing. I wasn’t disappointed.
Eugene Gant, the troubled, talented, confused young protagonist of a family saga entwined with Gene’s “coming-of-age” revelations, is a character that all readers, regardless of gender or upbringing, must eventually come to love. Precocious, intelligent, curious, and adventurous, young Eugene reminds me in some ways of another young man in another coming-of-age novel, Holden Caulfield. The difference between Wolfe’s take on the genre and Salinger’s is not just the depth and weight of the family saga that Wolfe uses to backstop Gene Gant’s journey to adulthood; it is the complexity of the language Wolfe infuses into the story, a choice that is at equal measure frustrating for its winding, digressing, and meandering style, and one distinctly at odds with the reclusive Salinger’s simplified prose. Perhaps the difficulty of tracking the arc of Look Homeward, Angel‘s storyline in and around Wolfe’s sweeping and soaring wordsmithing is why nearly every high school student in America has read Catcher in the Rye but far fewer have delved into this thick volume of Southern musings, anecdotes, and twisted familial disasters.
Though set in the mythical town of Altamount, North Carolina (loosely based on Wolfe’s ancestral home of Asheville), clearly written in the languid and internally conflicted style of other Southern writers (Faulkner, O’Connor, and Welty come to mind), and deeply rooted in place as the overriding character looming behind the story, Wolfe’s take on family and maturation is universal and deserving of closer scrutiny and a larger following. And yet, the difficulty of his craftsmanship, the author’s incessant need to digress and add countless cultural, literary, and regional asides to the narrative, is likely one reason why Wolfe is not studied nor read with the same width and depth that his aforementioned Depression era contemporaries seem to be. But once the reader comes to appreciate the cadence to Wolfe’s elegant prose, the saga of Oliver and Eliza Gant and their expansive brood of little Gants (including Eliza’s favorite child, Eugene) this book truly is a transformative read. Here’s a sample of what I am talking about:
Oliver had about twelve hundred dollars, saved from the wreckage of Cynthia’s estate. During the winter he rented a little shack at one edge of the town’s public square, acquired a small stock of marbles, and set up business. But he had little to do at first save to think of the prospect of his death.
There. That short passage says much, in a mere three sentences, of the inner demons afflicting the hard drinking patriarch of the Gant family. And such wonderful exposition of soul is only the beginning.
4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars. An American classic.