Larry Woiwode’s memoir A Step from Death is more a successor than a sequel to his first memoir, What I Think I Did: A Season of Survival in Two Acts (2000). Much like its predecessor, A Step from Death is a loosely structured and meandering memoir focused on ideas more than a simple recounting of a straightforward, linear narrative rendering a particular time in an author’s life. As such, the book’s shifting structure is anchored by two conceits. First, the book is presented as a letter to the author’s son, Joseph, in the tradition of the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791). The book begins, “So, dear son, where to begin?” As reviewers have noted, this conceit becomes slightly tenuous at times because Woiwode, in telling stories from his past, must recount and elaborate upon events and circumstances that his son Joseph presumably would already know about in some detail. Nevertheless, Woiwode explains both his aim and his method when he addresses his son and readers, stating,Every detail I stumble over or move away to clear a path to the exit is a fragment of memory, and memory is a contract between the past and our instinct to shape it into a story that will cohere far into the future. A memoir should recognize that contract and dissolve the distance between us, and by that I mean not only the attentive reader, my soul’s semblance, my mirror, my brother or sister, but mostly you, Joseph, my only son.
The other tactic used in A Step from Death to build a thematic and idea-focused memoir (as opposed to a conventional chronologically organized narrative) is the story’s springing back and forth between an alarming number of traumatic accidents. Woiwode tells of a recent tractor accident in which he is almost killed that requires him to endure painful rehabilitation for months; another time, he is involved in an almost-fatal car wreck. His son Joseph is a victim of so many accidents that he seems to be prone to them: He is seriously injured by a horse, suffering brain damage and lying in a coma for a time; he is shot in the leg by a loaded gun that falls to the floor and discharges; he burns down the barn with his brother; and he almost loses part of his hand in a lawn-mower accident.
Despite the use of the two conceits as thematic guideposts, the book’s structure is wandering and scattered, operating scene by scene and vignette by vignette in an almost stream-of-consciousness way, although Woiwode’s sentence-to-sentence prose style is as clear and as carefully crafted as ever. However diverse and random the varied narratives telling the back and forth of Woiwode’s life, on a thematic level the stories build upon each other and slowly help the reader to grasp the author’s subtle but evident aims. Even as the memoir depicts Woiwode’s tractor accident (when a power takeoff shaft on a baler pulled his loose jacket down into the device, slamming him against the implement, binding him brutally, breaking a number of ribs, and savagely wrenching his arms) and then his subsequent difficulties with recovery, the narrative springs back to his early days as a newly successful writer, having completed What I’m Going to Do, I Think (1969) and moving on into the series of vignettes that would eventually cohere into Beyond the Bedroom Wall (1975). In many ways, the memoir is about this tractor accident (just as it is about fathers and sons and the ever-present reality of death and writing): It is about the things that wrench, bind, and hurt individualsand how they can free themselves from such bonds.
As Woiwode recounts the early days and his work on his novel, he emerges as a man obsessed with his work and driven to write and rewrite his book over many years. He describes (in perhaps too little detail) how his singular focus on completing his book almost destroyed his marriage and how he eventually learned to place the things in his life in their proper priority.
Even as the book bounces between Larry and Joseph Woiwode’s various accidents and a fragmented portrait...
(The entire section is 1672 words.)