The Runaway Soul
Harold Brodkey’s thin output and much-touted promises have kept those who follow his career in limbo for more than a quarter century awaiting the publication of his Party of Animals, which has been under contract to various publishers through the years. With the publication of his first novel, The Runaway Soul, Brodkey at sixty-one makes good at least partially on his promises. It is not clear whether this huge, Proustian novel, this detailed outpouring of Wiley Silenowicz’s inner soul, is the whole of what has occupied Brodkey for so many years or whether more is to come.
The present novel takes Wiley from his earliest years into his college years and beyond. The novel is unabashedly autobiographical and deals with less than half of the six decades Brodkey has lived. Perhaps a sequel is on the way.
That Brodkey’s first novel was more than a quarter of a century in the making is, according to its author, because of the heavy and constant revision to which he subjected his original manuscript; he revised many pages extensively more than thirty times. The result of all Brodkey’s writing and revision seems to be a sprawling novel, in many ways inchoate, that is fascinating in some respects but that desperately needs further revision and some restructuring.
In the process of unburdening himself of the story of his life, Brodkey has fallen victim to a dilemma that perhaps he had no way of anticipating: the kind of gut-spilling, self- referential novel that was in vogue in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when Brodkey presumably began work on this book, does little to entice many modern readers.
This is not to say that Brodkey’s book is not worthwhile, but merely to mention one of the hazards that its author will likely encounter as he and his publisher try to reach contemporary audiences. One can envision several film scripts or television specials being made from parts of the book, as has happened on at least one occasion to material from Brodkey’s collection Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (1988).
Readers familiar with that book or with Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows (1957) or Women and Angels (1985) will find much in The Runaway Soul that replicates the stories in those collections. They will have met most of the characters in these earlier works and have read essentially about the situations that provide the structure of this first novel.
Brodkey begins his narrative (after a single page devoted to the protagonist’s birth) when Wiley Silenowicz, an adopted child, is fourteen, with a stepfather who dotes on him almost to the point of indecent adoration. He nuzzles him and tells him how exquisite he is, how he drives all the women crazy with his good looks. The stepfather, S. L. Silenowicz, is a moderately successful businessman living north of St. Louis near the Mississippi River in a town much like Alton, Illinois, where Brodkey was reared.
Silenowicz/s wife, Lila, pushed for Wiley’s adoption when the child’s mother died before the boy was two. The natural father, like Brodkey’s own father an uneducated junkman, could not care for the child, whom he apparently sold to the Silenowiczes. The couple already had a child, Nonie, a quite dysfunctional girl ten years older than Wiley. She may, indeed, have killed her two siblings, both boys. They were left one at a time in her care, and on each such occasion the brother left in her care died.
Lila and S. L. were on the brink of ending their marriage when the opportunity to adopt Wiley presented itself. Lila clutched at this straw as a possible means of saving her marriage. Her ploy worked. S. L. was enchanted with Wiley from the beginning, growing fonder and fonder of him as time went on.
By the time the boy was five, the local school system had identified him as exceptionally gifted, one with genius mentality. His natural father, learning of this, took Wiley from the Silenowiczes, which was a major trauma in Brodkey’s own life as well as in that of his fictional counterpart. The junkman soon found that he could not cope with caring for a child and returned the boy to his adoptive parents, with a scar deeply etched on Wiley’s psyche.
The family structure in The Runaway Soul is tailor- made to assure tension and trauma. Nonie is old enough when Wiley arrives to resent his presence. She is old enough and unstable enough to torment him in extreme ways. To add to the situation, Lila and S. L. do not have a stable marriage, and when Wiley is an adolescent, S. L. suffers a series of strokes, leading ultimately to his death.
(The entire section is 1916 words.)