Friday, January 1, 2010

On Larry Woiwode and "What I Think I Did"

Have you ever heard of Larry Woiwode? My first exposure was an off-the-record statement by an English professor: One of the best prose writers today is Larry Woiwode, but we don’t study him because he’s a Christian. The man didn’t say it with glee or as a judgment—just as a statement of fact. I was too shocked to react and later checked with a classmate to get the name of the writer for future reference.

It turns out Woiwode was a regular contributor of short stories to The New Yorker as well as to numerous other literary magazines. His first novel, What I Think I’m Going to Do, received the William Faulker Foundation Award for best novel of 1969. When I read it, I thought it insightful and enjoyable. But his second novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, deals with a family struggling with loss. It took my breath away. Published in 1975, it was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Book Critics Circle Award.

I’m not trying to make a case for Christian writers—some might even argue as to whether or not Woiwode’s work is truly Christian because he doesn’t present an overt Christian message. In fact, he didn’t claim to be a Christian when writing his early works—but he was dealing with his Christian heritage. The secular university has trouble with him because he never moves away from a Christian worldview. The Catholic denomination of his background is present and vital to his life as he struggles to make sense of it all.

Right now Woiwode looms large in my mind because I spent time with him during our Christmas blizzard. I wanted to dig into something meaty, so I finished the first installment of his three-book memoir. What I Think I Did was published in 2000. (A Step from Death, which I haven't read yet, is the second. It was published in 2008.)

Although there are several themes, a blizzard—how fitting for my circumstance—held everything together. Not a small blizzard, but a blizzard of epic proportions. As he struggles to literally survive while maintaining and feeding a wood burning stove (in southwest North Dakota where trees do not grow naturally), his mind moves back and forth from the blizzard to incidents of his youth in Illinois and his early years as a writer in New York. The scenarios might seem disparate, without possible connection—but the struggle for survival binds them together.

Portions featuring the blizzard focus on family connections and the need to think practically. Portions featuring his development as a writer feature mentors (such as William Maxwell), colleagues (such as John Updike), and friends (such as Robert DeNiro). Considering his contacts and achievements, he could hardly avoid dropping names when writing about his life among them. I found his portrait of Maxwell—another writer generally ignored by academia—especially intriguing.

The surprise was DeNiro whom he met when he took an acting job because he had yet to sell a story and was desperate for money. Woiwode trained as a classical actor but decided against acting because he had trouble walking away from the characters he developed. DeNiro trained as a method actor and the description Woiwode offers of him changing the position of moles through the movement of his facial muscles was priceless.

Woiwode’s sentences are complex. While the flow in his novels could perahps be described as gentle and flowing, the sentences of this first memoir seem convoluted at times. And yet, once I yielded to the experience, I discovered the rhythm and syntax of what must be an unusual mind. He's worth reading for his use of language alone.

At the same time, while Woiwode is sensitive by nature and excited by art, the rigidity and reticence of his northern European background shows up at times. Reading What I Think I Did is a bit like stumbling onto a road not taken.

I was also fascinated by the influences on his life as a writer. In the end, the people he lived and worked with were significant because they impacted him rather than because they were interesting. I couldn't have asked for a better read to absorb my thoughts when bound by the constraints of a blizzard.

No comments: