The Runaway Soul
by Harold Brodkey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 835 pp., $30.00
Harold Brodkey’s big book The Runaway Soul appears before us trailing a long prepublication history, many high commendations, and a counterfoil of questioning if not derogatory comments. Associated and overlapping materials have already been published in two collections of short stories (First Love and Other Sorrows, 1958, and Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, 1989). There has also been an extraordinary amount of gossip and opinionated talk about the author’s career, much of it provoked by Brodkey’s own personality, some of it inspired by the special reach of his literary ambition, even more of it centering on the prolonged and apparently turbulent process of editorial consideration and reconsideration, which has now resulted in a first, but monumental, novel by an author entering his sixties.
At first survey The Runaway Soul resembles, and in many detailed passages it reads like, yet another example of that familiar fictional type, the novel of development, for which German criticism has provided the name of Bildungsroman. Such a book typically describes the process by which a sensitive young person (often the artist himself) grows up, declares his values, and climactically produces…the very novel we have been reading. Among the literary ancestors bestowed on Harold Brodkey by critics have been such predecessors in self-exploration as Thomas Wolfe, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. Milton and Wordsworth have been mentioned as well, and there is nothing to keep one from invoking the names of Goethe, Flaubert, and Thomas Mann, any or all of whom may quite possibly become, in time, the standard references with which to discuss the soul-forming fiction of Harold Brodkey. But now the major work of fiction is actually to hand, and a first step might be to look directly, and if possible analytically, at the book as it has been written. We deal here with an important work, in scale, in emotional pitch, in intellectual reach; best to have the basic facts clearly on record.
The Runaway Soul is primarily about the developing mind, body, and character of Wiley Silenowicz. His name at birth was different—perhaps Aaron Weintrub or Cohn or even Buddy Brodkey. The reason for this abundance is that, at the death of his natural mother when he was aged two, Wiley was taken into the family of S.L. (Samuel Leonard or Samuel Louis) Silenowicz and his wife Lila (or Leila)—who already had a daughter, Nonie, some ten years older than little Wiley. Wiley’s (or Aaron’s) natural father was a junk dealer—a rough and uncouth man, no kin to either Silenowicz. There is a story that he sold them the frail and sickly infant for a paltry sum because Lila wanted a child who would bring back to the family the wandering affections of her husband. It was a rash venture, but it worked; S.L. was or quickly became more devoted to his adopted son than to his wife or daughter. That produced predictable discord; but the devotion of a housekeeper …