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A Good Minestrone

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, Anne Marie, pulled Wiley through a wretched infancy, and for a while the situation of the Silenowicz ménage appeared to stabilize.

S.L. was a small businessman engaged in a set of nondescript, precarious enterprises, foolishly extravagant when flush, but easily rendered despondent by failure. His wife, Lila, was a shrewd, hard-tempered, witty vulgarian with streaks of unforeseeable good temper. They lived in a suburb of St. Louis near the river; they observed their own formulas of respectability; they worried about educating Wiley, who had been identified at school as precocious, but not so much about their own child, Nonie, who hovered on the fringe of being academically backward.

Nonie was also a sadistic, hysterical, and pathologically jealous thorn in Wiley’s young side. The most traumatic of her scenes occurs during a thunderstorm when she is just thirteen years old. (By elementary arithmetic Wiley must be just three; but Brodkey is not limited in describing the scene to what a three-year-old could consciously have realized. The terror and incoherence of events are described as in a phantasmagoric nightmare—violently and vividly, but at the expense of inserting his mature literary perceptions into a picture composed behind three-year-old eyes.) Terrified by the storm, Nonie shrieks and howls; she beshits herself; she demands that her father, or Anne Marie, be sacrificed to the lightning. And, as we learn belatedly, she almost succeeds in carrying Wiley off into a dark closet where she will throttle him.

This will not be a new adventure for her. After Nonie was born, the Silenowiczes had two sons whom they left, successively, in the care of Nonie—and whom, on their return home, they found dead. Nobody says, and nobody doubts, that she was somehow responsible. For such is Nonie: losing a tennis game, she hacks with her racket at the opponent’s wrist and ends the game that way; while she is playing another game on a porch, her antagonist falls (or is pushed?) to the sidewalk and dislocates her shoulder. She is a cold as well as a ruthless little bitch; when a few years later major misfortune strikes (her father suffers the first of a series of strokes, while her mother is diagnosed with cancer), Nonie does not hesitate. She gets a civilian job with the army, leaves Wiley to take care of his dying adoptive parents, and moves herself away.

The last years of Wiley’s life in St. Louis (before, by unexplained circumstances, he is transferred to Harvard College) are thus spent in the house of his dying parents—his mother half mad with pain and shame at the squalor of her circumstances, his father haunted by grief and humiliation. And the boy is a study too—his pride at “behaving well” toward the doomed parents mingled with anguish at the waste of his youth. Here the relevant comparison is with Dostoevsky, and it is a comparison in which Harold Brodkey does not come off at all badly. He has a strong feeling for the ignobly decent side of life in the suburban shallows and a deep sense of the little boy’s helpless horror that can express itself only in convulsive vomiting. Toward the end of the St. Louis section, he begins to reach into the lower depths, the disintegration of the Silenowicz family being set forth with a controlled intensity that is impressive.

Brodkey has no interest in, or reason to explore, as Faulkner did, the history of the land, the vast commercial highway of the river, the saga of the frontier, the heritage of the Civil War, or the mean pathos of Main Street. He does not recognize the existence of a black community. His is mainly an urban family drama—not the story of Wiley as a member of his family, but of the family seen as appendages to Wiley. Three strong voices fill the first part of the book—Daddy (S.L.), Momma (Lila), and Nonie. They would be impressive voices in any company; even S.L., when he is nuzzling with Wiley, and soliloquizing about himself, has the kind of awful weakling’s fascination that one remembers from Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. Most appealing of all is the flashy performer Lila, who not only acts, directs, and criticizes the performances of the entire extended family, but judges people with the finality of a meat cleaver. And at any unexpected moment there is always the chance that Nonie will break in with a shriek or a moan from her private hell. But where in this chorus of strident voices is there any room for the hero, Wiley Silenowicz?

Wiley starts on his fictional career with a tremendous handicap, in that he is supposed to be preternaturally intelligent. The more frequent word used in the novel (and often by Wiley about himself) is “smart.” The problem for such a character, and for any such character, is that if he actually says something intelligent (as, for example, Stephen Dedalus does), he comes off as a pedant or a prig; if he talks the common dialect of his unwashed contemporaries, what’s so special about him? The worst thing he can possibly do is talk repeatedly or at length about his own brilliance. On all these scores, the task of presenting Wiley Silenowicz in some approximation of his own words clearly faces Harold Brodkey with a set of formidable constraints.

While he is in the infant stage, Wiley naturally has few words of his own. But since we have to have some access to his consciousness, Brodkey provides him with imaginary dialects—sometimes like those half-impressions, half-conceptions that Nathalie Sarraute baptized “tropismes,” sometimes frankly metaphorical, occasionally erudite, and ultimately private associations of his own. Both exterior action and spoken dialogue are thus absorbed into interior monologue and phantasmagoria, while the sense of story or plot is frustrated. Stoppage is emphasized by the division of the text into separate units defined either as a period of time or topically as the action of a particular character. The character dealt with in one section commonly has little or nothing to do with characters from other sections. The time periods are not only separated from one another, but often inverted, so that a “later” unit in fictional time comes before an “earlier” one in the sequence of the book.

For example, after getting born in 1930 on a single snappy page, Wiley is moved for four brief units to 1944 when his adoptive father has just died, then back for three units to 1932, forward for a session with Ora, his Harvard girl-friend, in 1956, back for two quick episodes in 1932, then back to 1956 (but twenty minutes later) to complete the transaction with Ora. This pattern of discontinuity, which is expanded later in the book by the addition of three earlier sexual or quasi-sexual partners (Leonie, Remsen, and Cousin Daniel), offers no particular difficulties to a reader of modern fiction. It impedes and confuses, to be sure, the autobiographical development of Wiley. It sets him apart from his acquaintances, as if he were a student and they were specimens. It does not form a strong symbolic pattern, as the Easter-week disarray of The Sound and the Fury clearly does. Neither does it divide the emotional life of Wiley Silenowicz into a recognizable sequence of experiential units. What he learns from one experience (if anything) does not carry over to another or the others.

When he is thirteen years and eight months old, he is skillful enough to tantalize Cousin Daniel, whom he guesses to be homosexually inclined. When he is just fourteen, accident or the machinations of Nonie bring him up against a girl named Leonie, who is a decade older than he and already engaged to a military man; but none of that hinders her from a long-drawn-out spell of heavy necking with adolescent Wiley. With a boy named Remsen, when Wiley is fifteen, things progress to the point of mutual masturbation. (Even the marathon session of copulation with Ora ends in an act of masturbation.) Yet it is not explicit that any or all of these acts have led nowhere or ended in disappointment; they do not make up a sentimental education or an approach to one.

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