Had I a Hundred Mouths
William Goyen was born in eastern Texas in 1915. His home state provides the setting for many of these selected stories, which span his more than thirty-five years as a writer of fiction. The Texas of the first decade of this century, particularly the developing Houston, is described in “Zamour, or a Tale of Inheritance”; this story’s turn-of-the-century setting is the most remote time period Goyen employs in these stories. His other Texan stories cover events in the subsequent decades of the twentieth century, such as the flagpole sitters and tent-meeting religious revivals of the 1920’s and 1930’s, in both “Rhody’s Path” and “Figure Over the Town,” and modern industrial pollution and the decay of once-beautiful nature spots in “Bridge of Music, River of Sand.”
More important than where or when Goyen sets a story is how he sets it. In an interview with Reginald Gibbons in 1982 (which concludes this volume of stories and adds helpful commentary on Goyen’s own views of his art), Goyen declares that he is not a realist. His uses of geographic places and particular eras in several of the stories remain nebulous, and this lack of specificity is compensated for in Goyen’s very powerful, detailed use of images and symbols in his fiction.
Some of Goyen’s best images spring from the natural environment. There is a natural cave made of trees that shelters lovers, rapists, and fugitives in this volume’s title story, “Had I a Hundred Mouths”; this image of a cave creates a dark, secret, and private place away from society’s laws and taboos. More complex is the image of the ice-encrusted hothouse in “In the Icebound Hothouse.” This place, both natural with its lovely, fertile, and fragrant flowers, and man-made in its heated, out-of-season environment in winter, is a symbolic place that works on several levels: It is a fiercely desired haven for the troubled campus poet who narrates this story, a final resting place for a bizarre young coed who appears to commit suicide, and a place of employment and sensuality for the caretaker, who also dies there. The narrator in “Bridge of Music, River of Sand” is fascinated by a decaying, swaying, old iron-and-wood bridge over a dried-up riverbed. It looms in his boyhood dreams, with its shiny arch when it is whole and useful, and haunts him as an outward sign of passing time and modern industrial pollution when he revisits it many years later as a man.
Not only do physical objects stand as strong symbols in Goyen’s work, but animals and people often represent more than themselves. In “Arthur Bond,” a strange story in the tall-tale tradition which once flourished in the American Southwest, the title character has a worm take up residence in his thigh. The worm plagues Arthur Bond, like some Old Testament punishment for sin, throughout his life and even into death, for no one can still his coffin from shaking with the active worm in it. Arthur’s worm seems to symbolize his own sins of greed and lust; the worm controls him increasingly with each passing year.
An animal who comes to symbolize another Goyen character is the scrawny, renegade rooster in “The White Rooster.” Marcy Samuels, a young married woman hounded by an often-crowing and seed-stealing rooster, is also harassed by her elderly father-in-law, who lives with her and her husband. While the old man follows Marcy around in his wheelchair, dogging her steps, the rooster keeps her awake with his shrill voice. When Marcy attempts to capture the bird and kill it, she instead becomes the prey of Grandpa Samuels. The old man comes to identify himself with the doomed white rooster and so kills Marcy to give both himself and the bird freedom.
In “The Grasshopper’s Burden,” a deformed, retarded boy of about twelve is repeatedly described by a girl in his school as having a grass-hopper’s head. The girl, Quella, sees in this boy, George Kurunus, a symbol of something she cannot fully comprehend because she is too young; she believes he is “an appetite or a desire” that will one day destroy each child now at school. Quella cannot adequately express George’s symbolic nature as a death head for her.
Zamour, the black cat found soaked in the rain in “Zamour, or a Tale of Inheritance,” becomes the familiar of Princis Lester. (A familiar was an animal companion to a witch with whom she had perfect communication—most often a black cat.) During years of hermitage in her out-of-date home in developing Houston, Princis and Zamour are each other’s only company, until even he must desert her in her final insanity. After Princis is put in an asylum, her Houston neighbors see Zamour as her own shadow stalking their area.
The rural Texas landscape is often plagued with poisonous snakes, one of which plays a small but essential, symbolic role in...
(The entire section is 1988 words.)