Larry Woiwode Essay - Critical Essays

Larry Woiwode American Literature Analysis

Woiwode’s quirky, family-centered narratives signal the rehabilitation of the venerable genre of the family chronicle, a kind of fiction once pervasive in American novel writing but regarded by many critics as defunct. In the family chronicle, a writer basically builds a narrative around the history of one family, often an immigrant family whose daughters and sons fight to establish their own identity in the “new world” to which their parents or grandparents have brought them. Authentic and engaging family chronicles normally depend upon adherence to a meticulous realism that requires careful attention to the nuances of family life and conversation. Woiwode is equal to this task, and he unabashedly admires the traditional nuclear family. Consequently, his fiction underscores the value of finding one’s way in the modern world by retracing one’s steps in his or her family legacy.

Woiwode refuses to drown his characters in the angst-ridden excesses that have become so conventional in the modern American novel. Even to readers accustomed to cynical and world-weary protagonists preoccupied with discovering the mysteries of life in the squalor of the city while involved in some illicit relationship, Woiwode can make such old-fashioned values as family loyalty seem startlingly fresh and appealing.

His characters are not helpless victims of their times but participants in them. They are accountable not so much for what has happened to them but for what they do in response to their circumstances. This is a world that registers as authentic to the reader precisely because of Woiwode’s gift for psychological realism, made more engaging because of his command of the role of human memory in shaping one’s perception of one’s relationships.

Woiwode’s characters eventually recognize that the answers to their dilemmas are only partly in themselves. In the reestablishment of personal trust in friendships and the nostalgia of forgotten familial relationships, they recover a sense of balance and worth in themselves. However obliquely, each major Woiwode character finds himself or herself in a quest for a transcendent moral order—a renewed trust in God and humankind that would provide a reference point for his or her life. This quest animates their rejection of narcissism and a search for a love and security that only marital and familial relationships can foster.

Woiwode’s willingness to affirm that these relationships are central to self-fulfillment and to the stability of true American culture makes him unique among a generation of writers whose thematic concerns tend to focus on their characters’ dehumanization in society, their alienation from family life, and their eschewing of marital fidelity. Woiwode thus belongs in the company of self-consciously moralistic writers such as Walker Percy and Saul Bellow, writers more interested in the ways human beings survive and thrive in a fallen world than in the ways they capitulate to it.

His characters’ conflicts, from Chris Van Eenanam’s enigmatic search for manhood in What I’m Going to Do, I Think to Poppa John’s drive to recover his identity, are not merely contrived psychological dramas played out inside their own consciousness. They are compelling confrontations with the very concrete world of everyday life.

Despite his solid reputation in modern letters, Woiwode’s career, especially when compared with other writers of his caliber, does not represent the work of a particularly prolific author. In the two decades after he ended his abortive college career to pursue freelance writing, he produced few major works: one long, rather complex family chronicle, one medium-length novel, one short novel, a short-story collection, and a book of poems. Yet two of his three novels were critically acclaimed, national best sellers and are arguably among the best American novels written since 1960.

A highly acclaimed first novel can often prove to be a mixed blessing, as it can overshadow a writer’s subsequent efforts. Poppa John, Woiwode’s third novel, was greeted with some disappointment; that reaction, coupled with a long period in which Woiwode published nothing, led some critics to wonder about his commitment to his vision. After the period of relative inactivity following the success of his first two novels nearly twenty-five years earlier, Woiwode returned to the family chronicle in Born Brothers, The Neumiller Stories, and Indian Affairs. Their appearance seems to have answered the concerns of his critics.

Woiwode’s recent foray into autobiography with the introspective Acts and the publication of What I Think I Did, with plans for two additional autobiographical volumes, suggests that in his sixties Woiwode began to move into a new phase of his life’s work, one involving looking back on his writer’s journey; certainly, with his continued literary productivity, it does not imply that his journey is anywhere near its end.

What I’m Going to Do, I Think

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

A newlywed couple search together for meaning and purpose against the bleak, faithless landscape of the late 1960’s.

Woiwode’s first novel, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, is an absorbing character study of two newlyweds, each of whom is originally drawn to the other as opposites proverbially attract. Chris Van Eenanam, the protagonist, is a listless mathematics graduate student, an unhappy agnostic preoccupied with his unsure footing in the world. Put simply, he lacks vocation or a consuming vision of what he should do with his life. The novel’s title thus accentuates his self-doubt and indecision, echoing something Chris’s father once said in observing his accident-prone son: “What I’m going to do, I think, is get a new kid.” Ellen Strohe, his pregnant bride, is a tortured young woman, dominated by overbearing grandparents who raised her after her parents’ accidental death. Neither she nor Chris can abide her grandparents’ interference and meddling.

Little action takes place “live” before the reader, as Woiwode’s psychological realism deploys compacted action and flashbacks and the patterned repetition of certain incidents to carry the reader along as effortlessly as might a conventionally chronological narrative. The reader learns “what happens,” primarily as events filter through the conversations and consciousness of Chris and Ellen during their extended honeymoon at her grandparents’ cabin near Lake Michigan. This tantalizing use of personal perception and vaguely unreliable memory has become a trademark of Woiwode’s characterization. It permits him wide latitude in choosing when and how to reveal his characters’ motivations and responses to the events that shape their lives.

In their retreat from the decisions that Chris chooses not to face, the couple, now intimate, now isolated, confront a grim modern world that has lost its faith in a supreme being fully in control of the created universe. This loss is exemplified most dramatically in the lives of Chris and Ellen as they try to sort out the meaning of affection and fidelity in their new relationship as husband and wife and as potential parents. Ellen’s pregnancy is, at first, a sign of a beneficent nature’s approval of their union, but later, as each has a premonition of their unborn child’s stillborn delivery, it becomes a symbol of an ambivalent world’s indifference to their marriage and its apparent fruitlessness.

In the absence of a compensatory faith even in humankind (a secondary faith arguably derived from faith in God), Chris and Ellen come to realize that they have lost their ability to navigate a hostile world with a lasting, meaningful relationship. The “student revolutions” of the 1960’s had promised social enlightenment and unadorned love, a secure replacement for the tottering scaffold of religious faith and civic duty that undergirded their parents’ generation. They discover, however, that neither science, as represented in Chris’s mathematics pursuits, nor nature, as a metaphor for the modern world’s hostility to metaphysical certainty, can fill the vacuum left by a waning faith in God or humankind. Such a committed faith, whose incessant call is to fidelity and perseverance, cannot survive without passion or understanding in the perplexity of the young married couple’s inexperience in living.

In a suspenseful epilogue that closes the novel with an explanation of what has happened to them in the seven years following their marriage, Chris and Ellen return to their honeymoon cabin. Chris retrieves the rifle that he has not touched in many years, and, as the action builds toward what will apparently be his suicide, he repeats to himself the beginning of a letter (perhaps a suicide note) that he could not complete. “Dear El, my wife. You’re the only person I’ve ever been able to talk to and this is something I can’t say. . . . ”

As he makes his way to the lake, he fires a round of ammunition into a plastic bleach container half-buried in the sand. In the novel’s enigmatic final lines, Chris fires “the last round from his waist, sending the bullet out over the open lake.” This curious ending seems intended by Woiwode to announce Chris’s end of indecision, a recognition that his life can have transcendent meaning only in embracing fully his marriage commitment to Ellen.

Beyond the Bedroom Wall

First published: 1975

Type of work: Novel

A sprawling chronicle of an immigrant family’s vitality and enduring faith despite the obstacles to its survival in the modern world.

The expansiveness and comic twists of Woiwode’s second novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall: A Family Album, offer a marked contrast to What I’m Going to Do, I Think. In Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Woiwode parades sixty-three characters before the reader by the beginning of chapter 3. True to its subtitle, “A Family Album,” Beyond the Bedroom Wall is a rather impish and gangly work of loosely connected snapshots of three generations of the German Catholic immigrant Neumiller family. Woiwode straightforwardly invites the reader to leaf through this “album” not as a rigorously chronological narrative but as a curiosity piece, pausing at particular episodes and events.

From sentimental scenes of a father telling his children stories and the poignancy of a child fighting a nearly fatal illness to the agonizing grief of losing one’s spouse, Beyond the Bedroom Wall is an engaging homage to the seemingly evaporating family unit at the end of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the novel’s “plot” is nearly impossible to paraphrase, consisting as it does of some narrative, some diary entries, and even its protagonist Martin Neumiller’s job application for a teaching position. Woiwode had published nearly a third of the forty-four chapters of Beyond the Bedroom Wall as self-contained short stories in The New Yorker; thus it is no surprise that the book reads as a discontinuous montage of events, images, and personalities. Woiwode reworked many of these episodes, foregrounding other characters and character traits, for his collection The Neumiller Stories.

Part 1 of the novel opens with the funeral of Otto Neumiller, a German immigrant farmer who had brought his family to the United States, and it continues, to part 5, with stories of the third generation of Neumillers, concluding in 1970, thus bringing members of the Neumiller family full circle from birth to life to death. Otto Neumiller had emigrated to America in 1881, relocating in the plains of North Dakota. As the reader meets him at the end of his life, he stands poised between two worlds, knowing neither the love nor the admiration of his neighbors, but seeking to bequeath something of value to his son, Charles. The farm he tended and leaves behind becomes emblematic, not of his success as a man of the soil but of his life as a devoted father who has sown and reaped a loyal and steadfast family, one whose strength is not in great friendships or possessions but in mutual love.

After setting this context, Woiwode moves the narrative forward quickly, introducing the family of Charles’s son, Martin, who is the “family album’s” true focal point. Martin Neumiller, like his father and grandfather, is a God-fearing, devoutly Catholic man and proud son of North Dakota whose ordinary adventures and gentle misadventures give the novel any formal unity it possesses. “My life is like a book,” he says at one point, “There is one chapter, there is one story after another.”

To see his life as a story, written by God in the gives and takes of everyday life, Martin must accustom himself to finding profundity and sustenance in the painfully ordinary patterns and repetitions of life and not in the frantic and guilt-ridden excesses of sophisticated city life or Hollywood romanticism. To accentuate this resolution, Woiwode peoples the novel with odd folks who serve as Martin’s extended family, a naturally burlesque troupe of characters who boisterously sample both the joys and the sorrows of life on Earth within the confines of small-town America.

The Neumiller family over which Martin presides is hardworking, intelligent, and generally steady; they are manifestly not extraordinary when measured against the typical families of traditional, rural, midwestern life. Martin, like Woiwode, revels in their normality. Driven to resign as an underpaid and underappreciated small-town teacher and principal, Martin takes on odd jobs as a plumber and insurance salesman to provide an income while waiting for another opening. Hearing of a principalship in the small Illinois town where his parents live encourages him to move there from North Dakota. Completely loyal to his wife, Alpha, Martin clearly treasures her and the six children they have. They have committed themselves to each other “till death parts them.”

The move to Illinois is disastrous, however, as anti-Catholic bigotry denies Martin the job he sought, and Alpha subsequently dies...

(The entire section is 5869 words.)