Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

What I’m Going to Do, I Think received the prestigious William Faulkner Award at the time of its publication, appeared on the best-seller list, and was translated into a number of languages. Woiwode’s second novel, the massive Beyond the Bedroom Wall, was also a critically acclaimed best-seller. His third novel, Poppa John (1981), failed commercially and received generally negative reviews; in time, however, that estimate may be revised. Woiwode has published many short stories, most of which have been excerpts from novels in progress; several of his stories have been included in collections of the year’s best. He has also published a volume of poetry, Even Tide (1977).

There is a particularly close connection between Woiwode’s first two novels. In many ways, the second novel carries on or elaborates motifs and concerns of the first: religion and especially Catholicism (as well as anti-Catholicism), the presence of the supernatural in visions or premonitions, parentage or parents and children (many more successes or near-successes occur in the second novel, in contrast to the failures in the first), the importance and influence of the past, and sensitivity to the natural environment (especially of the northern Midwest). Moreover, even particular incidents or characters are echoed or recognizably transmuted (indeed, a sly allusion to the first novel’s title is woven into chapter 8 of the second). For example, the horror of the stillbirth at the end of the first book is paralleled by Alpha Neumiller’s reaction to a preserved fetus used in a carnival sideshow in the second; Orin Clausen’s coarseness in urinating against the side of his barn is paralleled by Ed Jones’s writing his name in the dust with his stream (an apt symbol equating physical coarseness with his identity) while urinating out the backdoor of his house.

Unquestionably, Woiwode is important as a regional novelist focusing on the North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Illinois Midwest, and also as a writer among whose main interests are the role of religion (particularly Catholicism) and belief in twentieth century America.