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John Nichols

John Nichols Essay - Critical Essays

Goyen, (Charles) William (Vol. 8)

Goyen, (Charles) William 1915–

American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and translator, Goyen, whose style and subject matter place him in the tradition of the southern Gothic novel, has been largely over-shadowed by the more prominent authors associated with that tradition, such as Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers. His relative neglect has little to do with his ability, since he is a fine writer in his own right. His first novel, House of Breath, is considered by many to be his best. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

It is hard to believe that these two books were written by the same man. One, the "Selected Writings," shows William Goyen to be an extraordinarily rewarding and exciting writer. The other, "Come, the Restorer" is an embarrassingly bad echo. Of course, Goyen's fiction technique is by its nature a fail-safe gamble. He approaches the problem of fiction in such a way that he can only win or lose—he cannot produce a middling good book. (p. 73)

Goyen is usually classified as a Southern writer, but his regionalism sits lightly on him. He superficially resembles Flannery O'Connor and the early Truman Capote ("Other Voices, Other Rooms"). But the similarities are misleading. Capote and O'Connor were truly regionalists, drawing their support from their background. Goyen is very nearly a completely placeless writer, his landscape the mind's interior.

The "Selected Writings" shows Goyen to be an eccentric, difficult writer. Because of his great concern with his own inner perspective, he is often jumbled in his words and tangled in his wildly grotesque visions. He is primarily a writer of despair, of hopelessness, of pain. There is no relief, no shadow of comfort in his vision, only a kind of frenzied dance of death performed with a curious desperate elegance. A stylish apocalypse, as it were.

Goyen always seems far more interested in expression—the recording of his own visions and thoughts—than in communicating with the reader. And this is basically the reason for the failure of ["Come, the Restorer"].

"Come, the Restorer" is a long private dream of good and evil, of life and death, of man the angel and man the beast, of creation and destruction. It is like a canvas of Hieronymus Bosch but without Bosch's unifying esthetic tensions. "Come, the Restorer" is a novel without pattern, without plot (except in the crudest sense), without forward motion. Everything is symbolic, and every symbol alters its meaning many times. It is a book in which conventional logic is of no use, no value. This fragmentation is of course quite deliberate. In his freewheeling fashion Goyen pyramids his shifting symbols (a white rattlesnake, a grave in the Garden of Eden, an exploding chemical factory, etc.), relying on their cumulative effect, their overall impression on the reader's emotions rather than his intelligence. Randomness produces unity—at least in theory.

"Come, the Restorer" is a foolish novel. There is, for example, a long passage in a tropical Garden of Eden (where elemental male and female forces engage in a battle of sexuality) that is embarrassingly silly. It is as if "Green Mansions" were being replayed with Xaviera Hollander in the part of Rima the bird girl.

The novel suffers, moreover, from being too clever. It dies of its own intricacy. Its grotesques are just possibly exaggerated. (pp. 73-4)

Still, in this day of written-to-order novels, of fiction tailored to meet the expected demands of the market—like a new breakfast cereal or an after-shave lotion—it is encouraging to find a novelist who has enough faith in himself as a writer to be difficult and obscure and inevitably limited in his sales. The serious American novel is still alive. (p. 74)

Shirley Ann Grau, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 3, 1974.

["The Collected Stories of William Goyen"] will make an excellent introduction to the haunting, intensely poetic fictional world of William Goyen, whose best-known work is probably the novel "The House of Breath."… Though the stories are all distinctly Goyen's—possessing that curious blend of the surreal and the tender, the nightmarish and the visionary—they range from "The White Rooster," originally published in 1947 … to the extraordinarily mysterious "Bridge of Music, River of Sand," published this year…. The only "development" in Goyen's prose is toward the lyric, the understated; it seems that, from the first, he was already a master of the form of the short story. One can see, for instance, how Flannery O'Connor must have learned from "The White Rooster," and it is quite likely that many other writers have learned from Goyen to seek out what he calls "the buried song" in their characters, "the music in what happened." Goyen is one of our finest American writers….

His particular interest has always been, as the stories attest, the teller-listener situation; he has thought of his stories as folk song, as ballad, as rhapsody….

Any skillful writer who wishes to satirize Americans can make their speech sound flat, ugly, banal and outrageous. It takes a truly gifted writer, like Goyen, to seek out the deeper, subtle beauty, to liberate the poetic possibilities of ordinary speech, to give life to characters whom the world seems to have left behind. (p. 4)

Because these stories are so close to poetry, they may not yield their "meanings" at a first reading. They should be read again; ideally, one should read them aloud. (They would make excellent recordings.) Only by reading the stories over several times did I feel that I had approached an understanding of them, an appreciation of their musical, delicate authority, their evocation of transient, visionary moments that might otherwise be lost in that large "disorder" of the world. (p. 14)

Joyce Carol Oates, "William Goyen's Life Rhythms," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 16, 1975, pp. 4, 14.

William Goyen's short stories and novels, most of which are based upon his East Texas roots but written over many decades of wandering far from home, are rich with the bizarre and wildly tragic quality that we have come to associate with Southern fiction. Not unexpectedly we find the plethora of hopelessly entangled families in which no member can escape the inadvertent wounds caused by the on-ward life course of the others, the familiar abundance of itinerant evangelists wandering forever homeless in search of the holy energy that cannot be truly found, the multitude of deformed and mutilated people who are stared at and exploited, the cold metal shotguns hidden under pillows of the mad, and even the relentless white roosters crowing until disaster comes, the plagues, the flagpole sitters and the immense Biblical birds of doom. But as we read further and allow ourselves to be captivated by Goyen's recurring song-like sorrowful refrains, his very personal transformation of his local dialect to poetry, we realize that despite the expected images and icons, the similarity in the situations and stories explored, William Goyen's work is strangely lacking in the cruelty and violence common to most other writing from the South. Although, like Flannery O'Connor, his focus is upon redemption, his vision is much gentler and he seems to substitute compassion and a loving human healing for O'Connor's cleansing by intense hellfire and clear sight of sin. (pp. 296-97)

Very often William Goyen's writing seems to speak on an almost sublingual level, his words becoming vehicles for something else more primitive in resonance, akin to folk music in stark simplicity of impact. His novels and even his shorter tales do not conform to our standard notion of plot, but rather are circular in form, the slow unfolding of the stories arising in waves which swell from recurring thematic refrains reminiscent of the choruses of ballads, the rhythmic repetition of these often plaintive calls drawing the reader ever backwards in time and memory, like undertow against the forward motion of the tale. (p. 297)

It is [an] intuitive grasp of the extraordinary within our ordinary experience, the cosmic within the simple, that is very characteristic of William Goyen and his work. (p. 298)

"A Shape of Light," an early story in which Goyen retells the local folk myths which grew up around the famous "ghost light" in the thicket begins relatively simply: "… So the record reads: 'If on an evening of good moon you will see a lighted shape, much like a scrap of light rising like a ghost from the ground, then saddle your horse and follow it where it will go…. Some old timers here call this Bailey's Light and say that it is the lantern of a risen ghost of an old pioneer, Bailey was his name…."

At first this seems to be merely a collage of legends super-imposed upon one another and made human in the telling by Goyen's personal entry into them. However, gradually as the fusion of the layered tales intensifies, we realize that we are being asked to follow not just one man's mad pursuit of an illusionary glowing made of light of moon on dust motes, but the search of every human being for the radiance of life and hidden meaning in the darkness. In his slow and seemingly simple retelling of these superimposed stories, William Goyen is taking us on a spiritual voyage in the quest for God and for illumination, ever so gently, hardly telling us where he is taking us and why. (p. 299)

One of William Goyen's earliest stories, "Nests in a Stone Image," ends with the description of a man who lies "like a star, in a kind of new curious steadfastness, feeling himself calm purity, deep clarity, clear cold star…." William Goyen considers this stellar luminosity, this "coming out clear," one of the most vital functions of art. He believes that art is redemption, that salvation comes through clarifying and resolving other people's suffering and "coming out whole, in a way." For him, writing has eased the suffering of entering other people's pain, has given him a missionary sense of healing, "Let me take your pain because I will be able to use it and transmute it." (pp. 300-01)

William Goyen … believes all art is about the absence or presence of that power of love which he discovered in the writing of A Book of Jesus. Come the Restorer, the novel which immediately follows A Book of Jesus, is both a return to his older works, rich in the legends of East Texas and the local folk tales, and a branching out into something slightly freer, more surreal, more mythic, and more whimsical. In place of much of the old pain and sorrow that only the telling of the tale could heal, we find a quality of hope, of sexual energy, and of regeneration. Although, like Goyen's earlier works, this book reverberates with plaintive cries for the lost past which cannot be, there is a constant quality of partial mending, of rebirth and human trying from which the redemption comes. (p. 302)

For William Goyen, the act of writing, the telling of the tale, becomes a "keeping" in the most sacred sense, a way of retaining not only those ghosts of the actual past, but the spirit ghosts of the unrealized loves and longings that haunt us all. Throughout his work one hears the calling of vanished voices, both from the past which is irreparably gone and from the wished-for future which can never be. His writing is an act of restoration and retention in words of that which can never be truly restored or kept, yet stays with us in the deepest recesses of our souls, the lingering memory within which calls us from our life of doing and of flesh, towards the earlier echos we both fear and crave. (p. 302-03)

Erika Duncan, "Come a Spiritual Healer: A Profile of William Goyen," in Book Forum (copyright © 1977 by The Hudson River Press), Vol. III, No. 2, 1977, pp. 296-303.