Beyond the Bedroom Wall

by Larry Woiwode
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1052

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.

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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 abruptly. The reader discerns, with Martin, that it was his break from “ordinariness,” from typical family patterns of mutual decision-making—found in his uncharacteristically sudden decision to move his family east—that has animated most of the tension and diversion within the novel and which ultimately delivers its theme. Left to serve as “father, mother, nurse, teacher, arbiter, guardian, judge,” Martin appears to shrivel up inside. Outwardly stoic about his life’s ups and downs, he continues to be resolute about how to face disappointments and discouragements: “A man should be grateful for what he gets and not expect to get one thing more.”

Using this “family album” approach, Woiwode lends concreteness to his notion that reality is a fragile construction, one that sometimes cannot bear scrutiny “beyond the bedroom wall”—that is, beyond the dreamy world of sleep, of its visions of what might be. Woiwode intimates that whatever hope there may be for fulfilling one’s dreams, it is anchored in “walking by faith, and not by sight,” by trusting in and actively nurturing family intimacy.

The rather sentimental, “old-fashioned” quality Woiwode achieves in this family chronicle, his evocation of once-embraced and now-lamented values, prompted critic and novelist John Gardner to place Woiwode in the company of literature’s greatest epic novelists: “When self-doubt, alienation, and fashionable pessimism become a bore and, what’s worse, a patent delusion, how does one get back to the big emotions, the large and fairly confident life affirmations of an Arnold Bennet, a [Charles] Dickens, a [Fyodor] Dostoevsky? Beyond the Bedroom Wall is a brilliant solution.”

Woiwode’s eye for the rich details of daily life enables him to move through vast stretches of time and space in executing the episodic structure in this novel. His appreciation for the cadences of Midwestern speech and his understanding of the distinctiveness of prairie life and landscape and its impact on the worldviews of its inhabitants recalls other regional writers such as Rudy Wiebe and Garrison Keillor at their best.

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