When compared with the massive Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Poppa John is shockingly short and is more a finely wrought character study than a novel. Consequently, Woiwode relies on subtle symbolism and poignant imagery to convey the story’s essentially religious themes. The book takes its title from the character that aging actor Ned Daley has played for many years on a popular television soap opera. With his character’s immense personal popularity beginning to overshadow the show itself, he is eventually written out of the show in a dramatic “death.” Now close to seventy, outspoken, and Falstaffian in appearance and behavior, he seeks to recover his identity as “Ned,” which has been sublimated during his twelve years as the imperious Poppa John.
Poppa John’s compressed action takes place on two days in the Christmas season, a Friday and a Sunday—nakedly separated by a vacant and voiceless Saturday—and the novella is thus divided into two parts, decisively marked by the calendar: Friday, December 23, and Sunday, December 25. As in his other fiction, Woiwode is concerned that the reader discover the nature of his characters’ predicaments by “listening” to their own thoughts and memories as they recall them, rather than by intrusive exposition by an omniscient narrator. Progressively but achronologically, one learns the relevant facts of Ned’s past; recollection, in fact, dominates present action in the evolving narrative.
Therefore, in responding to the novella, it is important to recognize the character traits that Ned has sought to embody in Poppa John for twelve television seasons. Part King Lear, part Santa Claus, Poppa John evinces a kind a tragic benevolence, resolving contrived soap opera dilemmas with well-chosen biblical verses. Though easily spouting Scripture while in character, Ned rarely discerned its significance for himself, nor has the sage presence of Poppa John transferred any benefits to his own relationships. In this portrayal, Ned found inspiration in his own grandfather, a fiery evangelical preacher scandalized when his daughter, Ned’s mother, married a Catholic and converted to this alien faith. His father, a vaguely corrupt policeman, had died a violent death that Ned himself overheard taking place while hiding in a warehouse—a signal event that drove him into an adult acting career that has...
(The entire section is 975 words.)