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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

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...

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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 her siblings.

Readers learn that Wiley was identified at age five as having a phenomenally high IQ. On learning of this, his birth father, an uneducated junk man, takes his son from his adoptive parents, which proves very traumatic for the boy, who feels more like an object than a human. When the birth father finds he cannot care for Wiley adequately, he returns the boy to the adoptive parents.

The basic story in The Runaway Soul is concerned with Wiley’s need for love and his inability to find it. Whenever he is in relationships, be they with his adoptive parents, his stepsister, his various lovers, or his friends, the love he so fervently requires always has strings attached.

The chronology Brodkey imposes on this novel will bewilder some readers. It seemingly is random rather than sequential. Although authors frequently deal with chronology in heterodox ways, they usually can justify their doing so on solid artistic grounds. If such grounds lurk beneath the surface in The Runaway Soul, they elude most readers, as they did most critics.

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