(Masterpieces of American Literature)

With the publication of The Runaway Soul, Brodkey published a book that many of his followers had been awaiting for thirty years. Weighing in at 835 pages, it was suggested that this book was the great “runaway novel.” Most critics agreed that it made prodigious use of language and of grammatical structuring, which some of them referred to as “architecture.” On the other hand, many critics considered the book flabby and contended that to make its greatest impact, it should have been much shorter. Certainly it would have benefited from a more drastic revision even than those that Brodkey, noted as a heavy reviser, accorded it.

Readers of Brodkey’s short stories will find many familiar characters in The Runaway Soul, whose protagonist, Wiley Silenowicz, is Brodkey’s alter ego. Wiley, like Brodkey, was brought up on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis. Like Brodkey, he is an adopted child and bears some of the baggage that goes with being adopted. Wiley is first introduced to readers at age fourteen after Brodkey devotes only one page to his earlier life, much of which unfolds indirectly as the story evolves.

Wiley’s stepfather, S. L. Silenowicz, a businessman, adores his adopted son. The stepmother, Lila, is somewhat less adoring. She has had to deal with many acute family problems. Her daughter, Nonie, ten years older than Wiley, may have been responsible for the deaths of two of...

(The entire section is 419 words.)