Totempole is Sanford Friedman’s radical coming-of-age novel, featuring Stephen Wolfe, a young Jewish boy growing up in New York City and its environs during the Depression and war years. In eight discrete chapters, which trace Stephen’s evolution from a two-year-old boy to a twenty-four-year-old man, Friedman describes with psychological acuity and great empathy Stephen’s intellectual, moral, and sexual maturation. Taught to abhor his body for the sake of his soul, Stephen finds salvation in the eventual unification of the two, the recognition that body and soul should not be partitioned but treated as one being, one complete man.
Totempole is the NYRB Classics Book Club selection for September 2014.
An extraordinary book, vivid and utterly convincing …The truth of Mr. Friedman’s book is not the truth of autobiography, but the truth-making that the best fiction is.
First the idylls of childhood and comedies of youth; then the slaughterhouse of history. The Korean War, that immense, unremembered mid-century event, found its unlikely but incomparable chronicler in Sanford Friedman, whose first novel, Totempole, was fearless about a young soldier’s homosexual awakening back when timidity and weak suggestion were the rule. Having barely achieved publication in 1965, Friedman’s great-hearted masterpiece was forgotten, recovered in the mid-eighties, then forgotten again. May it now be with us to stay.
—Benjamin Taylor, author of Naples Declared
Friedman has the old-fashioned novelist’s eye—and ear—for character, speech, and setting… . Nowhere in recent fiction have the erotic sensations of childhood, boyhood, and youth been more scrupulously portrayed: This is no New Yorker–style evocation of lost innocence, but a hard-headed account of what the burden of sexual appetite actually feels like.
It proves to be the most candid, and least pornographic, of studies of the genesis
of a homosexual; paradoxically, by close concentration on the agonies of a young
man searching for sexual fulfillment … This was a dangerous book to write… Its
impact as a document of great honesty will, without doubt, be considerable.
—Anthony Burgess, The Listener
I think Totempole an extraordinarily courageous and highly moral work. The author
tells us exactly what it was like to be himself at a certain time and place and,
uniquely, I believed him. Truth is rare; he seems to have it.