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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

You Can't Go Home Again

You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe

11 of 21 people found the following review helpful:

June 24, 2004

There's little doubt that Thomas Wolfe was a good writer, but he wasn't a good storyteller, a fact made abundantly clear through the long, winding, often pointless tangents he embarks upon in You Can't Go Home Again. There are times when Wolfe covers years in a couple of pages and others where he spends six chapters describing one evening in New York, which gives the whole story the jarring motion of riding in a car with someone who's never driven before. Some of the tangents, like detailing the lives of Esther Jack's servants or describing the mythical C. Green who jumps off a building, have little meaning to the story and could have been left out entirely without damaging the piece.

This is what I mean by Wolfe is a good writer, but not a good storyteller. There's no technical fault with his writing, but it lacks the focus, the cohesion of a good story; it attempts to tackle everything instead of focusing on one or two key issues. I suppose part of this problem was that by the time the book was published, Wolfe was dead from TB--the book was assembled by his editor from tons of notebooks--and the editor did the best he could to create a unifying thread by trying to make it about George Webber's journey to enlightenment. Although the problem is that the story ends up being a gigantic "come to realize story" because it isn't clear what, if anything, Webber is going to do now that he's unlocked the secrets of the universe.

The learning and changing occurs within Wolfe's own mind, spewed out in the last 5 chapters as a letter to his former editor. As I said, though, what action he plans to take is unclear.

There were parts of this book that were interesting, flashes of brilliance. When Webber goes back home early in the book, I thought it was entertaining (albeit over-the-top) to see how his hometown had changed in the Roaring 20s. The party at Esther Jack's dragged on for too long, but had its moments. Then, after the book really sags in the middle, we get to the meeting with Lloyd McCarg(?), which was amusing. Finally, after suffering through page after page of horrible German dialect and a lot of vague stuff about how Germany has changed, Wolfe shows the horror of the Nazis through the incident on the train, which was the most touching moment of the story, IMO.

The thing is, none of it really connects to each other, except that George is involved with everything. We never really find out what happens to Esther Jack and company during the Depression or about George's love interest in Germany or a whole lot about the devastation to his hometown. Everything is touched on briefly and then disappears, a flash in the pan.

So, as I said, there are flashes of brilliance and that's the problem. A good writer is hit-or-miss while a good storyteller is consistent in holding the audience's attention by creating a vivid, interesting story. To use another of my unpatented sports analogies, a lot of pitchers have a good arm--throwing in the upper 90s, maybe tickling 100mph--but they don't have the command of their pitches to find the strike zone on a consistent basis. Those guys are throwers, not pitchers. Great pitchers may not always throw as hard, but because they have good control (most days) they get the hitters out. Thus a good pitcher will last a lot longer than a thrower.

A guy like Wolfe is definitely a thrower, able to write well, but unable to hit the mark consistently enough to create a captivating story. A guy like my boy John Irving, on the other hand, is a good pitcher, who has enough command of his story to keep readers hooked...at least in most of his books--even the best pitchers have off days. Wolfe may have been brilliant and a genius, but he lacked the refinement necessary to put him up there with the greats.

Still, you have to appreciate that the books has survived in our collective memory for this long. It's not for the faint of heart though. If you want light beach reading, look elsewhere. And if you want a better STORY, read "The World According to Garp" and see a great storyteller in action.

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