Barbara Wersba John Rowe Townsend - Essay

John Rowe Townsend

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The basic story of Barbara Wersba's ["Run Softly, Go Fast"] is good—and at times moving. It is about a destructive, loving-and-hating relationship between a young man [Davy] and his father [Leo]…. After a series of rows, Davy takes wing to the East Village. Two years later Leo dies in a hospital. There has been no reconciliation. Davy can't feel anything—or so he says. The story is recounted by him in a narrative written after the funeral; and having put it all on paper he begins at last to understand and forgive.

Yet the book does have failures which come from a consciousness that it was being written "for" young adults. It has chapters on hippie life, drugs, sex and the rest that give the impression all the currently fashionable ingredients have been duly pitched into the mixture. There's something determinedly positive about the ending (the air of "coming to terms" in the last chapter) that doesn't quite ring true. And the sophistication of Miss Wersba's technique doesn't fully conceal the occasional use of hackneyed situations, machine-made characters.

There is a second, partly overlapping theme. The book can also be read as a pilgrim's progress through the teens, during which Davy moves from his suffocating home—with a detour among the hippies—to the arms of a nice girl called Maggie and early success as a painter. This last set-up appears to represent the author's chosen compromise between hip and square….

Technically, "Run Softly, Go Fast" is highly accomplished. It works mainly through flashback, but with forward jumps, sudden flights of dialogue and verbatim "repeats" of key passages. Maybe the technique gets in the way. I do not doubt the book's underlying sincerity, but to me at least it fails to speak clearly, and only occasionally strikes a responding chord.

John Rowe Townsend, in a review of "Run Softly, Go Fast," in The New York Times Book Review, November 22, 1970, p. 38.