After his father’s death, Woody Selbst feels a yawning emptiness in his life. At the age of sixty, he is deeply disturbed by questions about the meanings of life and death. In his period of mourning, he recalls a trip to the White Nile, where he had seen a buffalo calf being seized by a crocodile while the parent buffalo looked on without understanding what was happening. Their brute grief now helps him to cope with his own.
As Woody reflects on his own life, his father’s, and their unusual relationship, the story reveals the contours of Woody’s imagination and the travails of his experiences. His present life is full of cares, for he supports his invalid mother and two insane sisters, one of whom he has committed to a mental institution; a wife, from whom he has been separated for fifteen years; a mistress; and, now, his father’s widow, Halina, and her son, who plays the organ at games in the stadium. Despite the number of dependents whom he has accumulated, Woody lives alone, working as a tile contractor.
As a youth, Woody grew up fast, and his spirit has remained independent; at the funeral parlor, he insisted on dressing the corpse for burial, and at the funeral, he rolled up his sleeves and shoveled the dirt himself. There is no harm in Woody, yet his self-respect has not allowed him to live entirely within the law and has led him, over the course of his life, into theft, smuggling, procuring, and adultery. Still, he is moved by honesty, he hates faking, and he has always held in his heart both a belief in love and “a secret certainty that the goal set for this earth was that it should be filled with good, saturated with it.”
Woody’s memories and reflections probe these elements of his personality. His parents exerted very different influences on him. His mother had been converted to Christianity by Aunt Rebecca’s husband, the Reverend Dr. Kovner, himself a converted Jew, whose ministry was financed by a wealthy widow, Mrs. Skoglund. Kovner imparted his fervor to Woody and “taught him to lift up his eyes, gave him his higher life.” After the boy accepted Jesus as his personal redeemer, he was paid fifty cents to stand up in churches and give his testimony.
Though not a very devout Jew, Morris Selbst was increasingly alienated from his converted family. He considered Kovner a fool and resented the way his wife and daughters were being turned into “welfare personalities” who would lose their “individual outlines.” Standing for “real life and free instincts, against religion and hypocrisy,” he tried to rescue his son from their religion and hypochondria. Under their influence, he believed, Woody would not “even understand what life is. Because they don’t know—those silly Christers.”
Morris was an earthy, common, thick, physical man, “like a horseman from Central Asia, a bandit from China.” He had fallen in love with a refined English girl in Liverpool, in whose cellar he had slept, having been abandoned at the age of twelve by his family of Polish Jews on their way to America. Then, at sixteen, he scabbed his way onto a ship during a seaman’s strike and brought Woody’s mother with him to Brooklyn. Settling eventually in Chicago, he pursued horses, cards, billiards, and women, always living life in “his own vital, picturesque, original way.”
Woody remembers one spring afternoon when his father deserted the family and took off with a married woman, Halina Bujak, who worked in his shop. “From now on you’re the man of the house,” Morris told his fourteen-year-old son before asking him for money to buy gasoline.
Woody’s central memory involves the time his father stole a silver dish and the two came to blows over the theft. They had braved a blizzard to come to Mrs. Skoglund’s home in Evanston to ask for fifty dollars, which Morris said he needed to keep his business going. While the...
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