Look How the Fish Live
Beyond the Bedroom Wall
Is it possible to read The Sun Also Rises too often? Sad and charming and funny, young in just the right way, unbesmirched by, what makes so much other Hemingway foolish or wrong, it retains its magic the tenth time through. Yet Tim O’Brien has read it too often, let it sink into him too deeply. Though set in a town in the Arrowhead country of Minnesota, Northern Lights gives us Bill Gorton, in Robert Cohn’s position, talking to Jake Barnes:
“Much better now,” Harvey said. He sat on the bed. “Stellar human being. Why can’t everyone be so stellar?”
“I don’t know,” Perry said. “You all right now?”
“Good God, yes. Do you have my shoes?”
“Under the bed. Good night.”
“Dawn. Night. Addie fell for the stellar chap.”
“I know it. You’ll be better.”
“She falls and falls. She falls for everyone. Why can’t I be stellar?”
“You’re a one-eyed stellar fellow.”
Addie is Lady Brett, the ski races at Grand Marais are the bull fights in Pamplona, stellar Daniel is Pedro Romero, Perry’s wife is Hadley Hemingway. “Later they ate cold meat and apples and had another beer. It was all right. Harvey seemed happy, tall and very lean and strong, and the air was good.” That’s earlier, like Jake and Bill going fishing.
Which is a shame, because O’Brien seems to have firsthand interests and sense of places, and, in one long stretch, shows himself to be a real writer, not a ventriloquist. Interestingly, he stops writing like Hemingway where others often start, when Harvey and Perry leave the ski races and, at Harvey’s insistence, set out to ski home through the woods. They are brothers, the sons of a mad north woods minister, and Harvey probably invents the trip to force Perry into a vulnerability he would never reveal to their father, and Perry accepts it as a challenge. But Harvey loses their way, then gets sick, and they run out of food during a blizzard. The terms of potential combat dissipate into fleeting attempts to know what it means to be brothers facing annihilation. Freed from having to write much dialogue, O’Brien is free of Hemingway for more than a hundred pages, and the result is splendid clarity that is never nature writing, never heroics, never conscious understatement. Harvey is lousy with map and compass; he has brought too little food, but plenty of matches. O’Brien keeps his head through all this, shows that under stress discoveries will be made, but that getting along, and finding out what to do next, are as important to tenuous loving relationships as to survival.
O’Brien even assays that hardest of tasks, a prolonged telling of what happens after the high drama. To be sure, he fumbles about, inventing too many ways to show that the more adventurous Harvey cannot learn as much from adventure as can the introspective and withdrawing Perry. But it is good that he tries to offer more than the bittersweet conversation of Jake and Brett in Madrid. Northern Lights is too literary too much of the time, but fine when it is not.
J. F. Powers writes only like himself. But his first collection of stories in over a decade shows he can now do only this. Powers’s heart, never large, seems to have shrunk, and the result is an unpleasant combination of triviality and sourness. Most of the stories are, like his earlier ones, about priests, most are neat as a pin, but the ritual noncommunication of pastors with curates, of bishops with pastors, becomes thin. “Bill” is taken up with the fumbling efforts of a pastor to discover his new curate’s last name. In “One of Them” the situation is reversed and Simpson, the new curate, tries terribly hard to get his pastor to talk in sentences longer than three words:
“Take the eight o’clock Mass, Father. Weekdays.”
“Eight o’clock.” Simpson repeated it to minimize the chance of error. “Weekdays.”
“See about Sundays later.”
“Right.” It was Simpson’s impression that briefing had begun and would continue in the office, which they were approaching, but the pastor kept going, and at the head of the stairs it was Simpson’s impression that the man was about to leave him.
“Father“—it came out sounding desperate—“I’ve been wondering about things.”
The pastor…looked embarrassed. “Uh. Convert, aren’t you?”
No, not a convert, just curious. Beyond grunting at us, as Simpson’s pastor does, that such triviality is life, Powers accomplishes little. He becomes a little untidy only in “Priestly Fellowship” where he lets a priest just sound off—“All this talk of community, communicating, and so on—it was just whistling in the dark. ‘Life’s not a cookout by Bruegel the Elder and people know it.’ ” The result is the only interesting story in the book; the ones that aren’t about priests are dreadful. Going back to the stories in The Presence of Grace (1956) just to check, I found a lot of mere neatness, but there is a saving wit there that is all but gone now.
Powers publishes most of his stories in The New Yorker, as does Larry Woiwode. Powers writes about Minnesota; Larry Woiwode writes best about North Dakota, next door. But all resemblances stop there. At his worst Woiwode is content to tell neat stories of children at hideous play that seem like many other New Yorker tales. But at his best he is marvelous, a real bringer of news, a writer in love with his world, who cares about the hurt it has given him as his inheritance, and honors and forgives it. Beyond the Bedroom Wall is a very long novel in which Woiwode has tried something unlikely and achieved something impressive.
He calls his book “A Family Album,” and in it we find the Neumiller family, beginning with Otto emigrating to a farm near Mahomet, North Dakota, in 1881, and ending in the recent past, four generations later. But it is not a saga, like Buddenbrooks, which commits itself to a full telling of all the generations, or an attempt to control and unify like The Big Rock Candy Mountain, where one life dominates, or like Reynolds Price’s recent The Surface of Earth, where everyone talks about the same thing. It is none of these because Woiwode’s love for the Neumillers and for North Dakota—which is unashamedly a love for his own family and childhood home—is a matter of memory and reconstruction. He discovered at some point that he began to achieve his own life when his parents and grandparents achieved theirs, and an “album,” a loosely connected series of pictures and episodes, is his way of honoring not only their achievement but his way of knowing it.
Does it sound a perfect formula for sentimentality? It is no more so than is “East Coker”:
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the in- tense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
Like Eliot, Woiwode perceives a time for “the evening with the photograph album” and that “Love is most nearly itself / When here and now cease to matter.” But where Eliot filtered and displaced his autobiographical sense of home and family, Woiwode succeeds by being personal, by putting his imagination at the service of memory, and by realizing in this way that love really is most nearly itself when the here and now cease to matter. He is remembering the Neumillers in the years before he was born.
Perhaps this is why the book is best about parents and grandparents. We move from Charles Neumiller making a casket for the body of Otto, his father, to Charles’s son Martin on the night he proposes to Alpha Jones, to five years of entries from Alpha’s diary. This all happens in the Thirties, before Woiwode, in the position of a child of Martin’s and Alpha’s, was born. While Charles is going through his father’s things, he finds a letter, written in laborious German, by his own son, Martin: “I send you this on the occasion of your seventy-fifth birthday to let you know you have my admiration and fondest wishes.” Martin may be showing off his meager knowledge of his grandfather’s native language, but Charles “was ashamed that he himself had never been as open and affectionate with his father.” When we then turn to Martin as suitor, we look for the author of this boyish letter, and both do and do not find him, which is as it should be.
Martin is constrained as a lover because Alpha’s mother is as stanchly Lutheran as his own family is stanchly Catholic, and because Alpha’s father is what either mother would call a miserable sinner, a hard-spoken, hard-drinking reprobate who is also hard-working and interesting, a one-time major league catcher, a one-time Shakespearean actor. The courtship can begin only because Martin and Alpha are in college in Valley City, studying to become teachers; the moment they get near home they must shy from the disapproval of the mothers and the taunts of wonderful Ed Jones:
“You screwed her yet?” Jones asked in a slushy voice.
Martin blushed and stared at his shoes.
“I say, you screw her yet?” Jones asked even louder.
Should Martin simply leave?
“Tan’t ya cock? Pardon,” Jones said, and spat a tobacco-browned stream to one side. “Cat got your tongue? I hear all you Catholics like to do is dive for the beaver. Whoo-whoooo!”
Later, after Martin and Alpha become teachers, we learn from Alpha’s diary:
APR 19 If you didn’t have a lock on you, this wouldn’t go down. I keep you in my purse, anyway, just to be safe, Martin. We were dress-rehearsing the declamation speeches when Ruth, my brightest and best, said something swell-headed to me—I don’t even remember what, now—and I took her by the shoulders and started shaking her and couldn’t stop. She was crying and I must have looked a ghost. I let school out early and lay in the cloakroom and wailed for us both for an hour. Then my hand was where it shouldn’t be and waves went up my mind till I blacked out. Who can I explain this to if not you, Martin, God?
It is not surprising that this surprising event should happen, perhaps, but it tells us much that Alpha should try to explain it, to her diary, or to Martin, or to God.
Later still, when Alpha, just before she is married, is having religious instruction from a priest who is a cousin of Martin’s, the priest sees how extraordinary in her ordinary way Alpha is, and tells Martin:
“And you’ll have to be attentive to your husbandly duties. Alpha is one of the most passionate women I’ve met.”
Martin blushed; he’d never expected a priest to make such a confession to him, he who usually confessed to Father here, but had started dropping anonymously into confessionals in Wimbledon or Rogers or Jamestown lately, so Father wouldn’t hear how much he already knew of that part of her.
These quotations may give the book a singleness of tone or purpose it in fact doesn’t have. I could have found equally striking passages about farming, teaching, the Depression, or the sea of land of North Dakota, soil and sky and telephone poles. Woiwode is always evoking, but never in set pieces, and the links we get from episode to episode are never forced because they don’t have to be. Home is where one starts from, and Woiwode’s sense of home is strong enough to allow him to be relaxed and unself-conscious when he writes about winters and schools and sex and religion, and tries to make each one fully felt as lived.
All this comes from the first and longest of the five parts of Beyond the Bedroom Wall, and it is a complete triumph. The second and third, which cover the marriage of Martin and Alpha, the birth of their five children, down to Alpha’s death at age thirty-four shortly after the family moves to Illinois, are almost as good. But when Woiwode comes to his own experience he begins to falter, and much of his account of the boyhoods of Jerome, Charles, and Tim (who seems closest to Woiwode himself) reads like anecdotal New Yorker stories—to compare Alpha’s little masturbation with the sexual play of the brothers with their younger sisters is to see only an increase in self-consciousness and a corresponding loss of sensitivity. Earlier the fact that Martin is some-what less distinct than Alpha seems nothing more than a reflection of his being less distinctly a personality, and none the less important as a person. Later, especially after Alpha dies, Martin’s fuzziness begins to suggest a loss of control by Woiwode as he tries to dart, perhaps a little too quickly, among all the members of the by now large Neumiller family.
The move to Illinois, for instance, which turns out to be a major shift in the book, is handled much too pre-emptorily. Martin’s father has moved there and has incorporated himself as a carpenter; Martin is already superintendent of schools in Hyatt, “but there wasn’t much chance of getting ahead in North Dakota.” Martin doesn’t want to get ahead, though, doesn’t know why he wants to leave, and, we realize, Woiwode doesn’t either, it seems. With this realization comes our first sense of the limits of Woiwode’s making a novel out of a family album. The individual pieces that don’t work, after all, are only that, and there are others right through to the end that are superb. Along about the time of the move to Illinois, however, and especially after Alpha’s death, the book seems to lose its density, and it may be interesting to speculate why.
I know nothing of Woiwode’s life, and, perhaps deliberately, there is no information about him on the dust jacket. But he begins Beyond the Bedroom Wall with a reminiscence by one of the boys, Tim, about his first six years in Hyatt; Tim here is “I” and the reader is “you.” Presumably this reminiscence was one of the basic impulses of the book, but it leads, however, to the boyhood of the Neumiller kids, the fond memories of Hyatt, which are not among the book’s strong moments.
Another kind of nostalgia has obviously been at work in Woiwode, a much more interesting and hard-working kind, a nostalgia for his family and for North Dakota before he was born. In order to imagine or reconstruct or remember this world, he has had to lay aside simple reminiscence, to find a real and vivid use for this nostalgia, and he has done so wonderfully. The moment he comes to himself, as it were, to his own more direct memories, his novelistic hold slackens. His last major effort is Alpha’s death, which is, presumably for Woiwode himself but certainly for his novel, the pivot. Before that all is well; after that everything begins to seem posited, carelessly handled. It is not irrelevant that the best stories later in the book concern North Dakota—a fishing trip by one of the brothers; another brother remembering his first meeting two of his uncles when a boy; Alpha’s parents when aged.
I have no idea what “actually happened” to Larry Woiwode, or how much if any of this book is simply autobiographical. I am only trying to distinguish the impulses that seem to lie behind the two parts of his book, impulses that as I make them out seem related but crucially different. I want to make the distinction, furthermore, mostly out of gratitude to Woiwode for all he has achieved here. A friend of mine, having finished only a third of the book, wrote me recently in great admiration of Woiwode’s ability to honor and love and forgive, and went on to ask if there might not be something particularly American about this kind of book, comparing it to Agee’s A Death in the Family and Updike’s The Centaur. The point seemed well taken, but a reviewer cannot pursue it beyond noting that he found Beyond the Bedroom Wall better, for all its flaws, than either of those other books, good as they are.
Late in the novel Woiwode offers this explicit statement about his historical and geographical territory:
It seemed that the generation selling out at auctions or selling to dealers, those in their late sixties or so, was the last generation to care about the continuity of possessions: their families, their sons and daughters and grandchildren, seemed to want to get rid of the old pieces for the money they were worth now and get something new; have no family hanging heavy about them. Wood and fabric and leather and other natural materials absorbed the sorrows and joys of those who lived and moved among them or carried or wore them. Only a finish could be sanded away. A chair might reveal its entire history if touched and handled and listened to with enough patience, as an area of the earth could, or a body held against yours. And yet possessiveness and pride, along with their counterbalancing force, fear, were the real barriers to feeling.
The end of immigrant America, shall we say? The turn in that last sentence, however, yields one final way to praise him. Knowing how possessiveness and pride and fear were barriers to feeling, Woiwode breaks through the barriers and is able to feel and make us feel what those people experience. It may be one of the last books we’ll get that can do this.