SOURCE: “Author First Wrote Love Letters for a Fee,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, April 7, 1968, p. H14.
[In the following essay, Galloway traces Hoffman's early experiences as a writer, his relationship with his wife, and discusses with the author aspects of Hoffman's house in the town of Charlotte Court House, Virginia.]
Author William Hoffman, who got his “professional” writing start composing love letters for classmates at the tender age of 16, now finds himself cast in the role of country squire.
As author-in-residence at Hampden-Sydney College, he teaches creative writing, a field dear to his heart, and as the owner of “Wynard,” a pre Civil War house, he is living the life he likes.
“We looked for this kind of a house from the day we were married,” said Hoffman’s wife Sue, who is fond of horses and antiques. “I came to an auction at the house next door and found out about this one. We moved in five years ago.”
Built about 1832, the main section of the house in Charlotte Court House was later enlarged. The house came complete with ghost.
“We scoffed of course, and didn't believe in ghosts,” Mrs. Hoffman explained pertly, then added in a matter of fact voice, “but we have heard footsteps upstairs, and one night about 1 or 2 a.m. I heard someone come halfway down the stairs and then stop. I checked and both of the girls were sound asleep.”
“He's benign and benevolent, but he’s here,” commented Hoffman, with an amused smile.
The Hoffmans have two children, Ruth, 9, and Margaret, 6. They also have eight horses, a pony, and 50 acres of rolling countryside.
A courteous, friendly man, Hoffman looks the part of a college teacher. His English is precise, but a warmth and feeling for many subjects, especially people, comes through when he speaks.
The author of five published novels, Hoffman is presently putting finishing touches on a sixth, and has also written a play. The novels, all published by Doubleday & Co., Inc., are The Trumpet Unblown.Days in the Yellow Leaf,A Place for My Head,The Dark Mountains, and Yancey’s War. His latest not-yet published work concerns a minister accused of wrongdoing.
He has also written short stories for such publications as Ladies’ Home Journal,Playboy and Cosmopolitan. His interest in drama is a recent development.
“I feel that one of my strongest points is dialogue, and I can really turn it loose when I write a play,” he explained.
The name of his play, a serious drama, is The Love Touch, and it has already been performed at the Barter Theater in Abingdon. He is interested in finding theater groups to perform his works, and says he feels a need to ally himself with the theater.
“But,” he mused, “it is hard to find the right doors.”
One of the first floor bedrooms in the Hoffman house has been converted into an office, and it is here that the author writes from 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. each day, a habit he developed before he began teaching.
A native of Charleston, West Virginia, Hoffman attended Kentucky Military Institute in Lyndon. That’s where he began writing love letters for other students for pay.
Through contact with a Hampden-Sydney graduate at the military school, he became interested in the Virginia college. After serving in the United States Army in Europe for three years, he enrolled at Hampden-Sydney. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the school, he afterward considered studying law at Washington and Lee University in Lexington.
“But I wasn't sure I should go...
(This entire section contains 1966 words.)
into law,” he said, recalling his indecision. “I was advised to take a year and just study the courses I wanted to at Washington and Lee, and I did. I concentrated on languages, philosophy, creative writing.”
It was in his creative writing class that he got the idea that “maybe” he could be a writer. In 1950 he went back to Farmville, near Hampden-Sydney, and rented a room, intending to write short stories.
“But they didn't sell,” he said with resignation. “I needed to talk to someone about my writing. A lawyer, a doctor, an architect, can go to another lawyer, doctor, or architect to talk about professional problems, but I had no one.”
At that point in his life he decided to enroll in the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City, Iowa, and was granted a fellowship.
“I met some wonderful people there, but I thought the course made me too introspective,” said Hoffman. “They were highly pleased with my writing, but I wasn’t. I did know that from that time on, I definitely wanted to be a writer.”
He hitchhiked to Washington from Charleston with a friend in the summer of 1951, and “hacked around” as he describes it, working as a reporter for the Washington Evening Star.
“My friend, who had a job with a ‘secret’ government agency and was making lots of money, talked me into quitting my job at the paper and taking one with the agency,” Hoffman said. “My new job paid twice as much. I stayed one week—I detested it. But I didn't have enough nerve to go back to the paper and tell them I had made a mistake.”
“I decided to go to New York, and sold my car and everything else I owned—records, books. I rented a room way out on W. 103rd Street—it was so far out that the movies across the street were in Spanish—and started looking for a job. I figured I had no chance on a New York newspaper since I didn't have any references exactly,” he said with a sheepish smile, “having quit the Star.”
He wound up working for a large New York bank handling correspondence with foreign banks. His hours were from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.
“It was great. Everyone in the department was going to Columbia or NYU. There were writers, singers, dancers, would be actors, even one dress designer. They were intellectually stimulating, fine people,” Hoffman said. “I was writing and writing well. I was trying to write a novel.”
Then came an invitation to join the Hampden-Sydney English faculty, and in September 1952 Hoffman became a college teacher.
“I came with the idea that I was going to concentrate on teaching and forget about writing for the time being,” he recalled. “For the first six weeks, I was able to do just that, but then I started writing again.
“I was working on my novel, and I poured everything into it. But this time I had made contact with a New York agent, and sent her my manuscript. She said it was pretty long, but she'd send it out. Doubleday said they were interested, but asked, ‘Doesn't he ever write anything nice?’”
“To take my mind off waiting to hear about that first novel, I started on another. Let me point out that this was a golden time in my life. I had friends, I liked Hampden-Sydney, I was hunting, fishing, playing tennis and golf. I wrote in a state of mind that wasn’t torture and torment, but almost easily.”
Immediately after the first novel was refused, Hoffman’s agent sent the second to Doubleday. There was “no hope” on his part, according to Hoffman, and he had resigned himself to teaching or possibly studying law or doing graduate work in English.
“I had come back from hunting one day, and found there had been a call from my agent,” he said. “Now agents are ‘chintzy’ and they don’t call for nothing, so I knew something had happened. Doubleday had bought the book.”
This was The Trumpet Unblown, a World War II story about the United States Army, which Hoffman said received good reviews in all of the major publications and was “an astonishing success.”
“Two months later MGM offered to buy the movie rights. I went to New York, and several of their lawyers grilled me about whether or not any of my characters represented people I had actually known,” Hoffman said.
“I had used the nickname—only the nickname, nothing else—of one person I had known in the service. They panicked and were afraid to buy. This frightened the publisher, and Doubleday out of fear of a law suit, took the book off the market at the top of the sale.”
In another year, he had written Days in the Yellow Leaf, published in 1958, which the New York Times picked as one of the best novels of the year. It centered on the adjustments of servicemen to post war life.
A third novel, A Place for My Head, concentrated on problems related to integration in the modern-day South.
Hoffman stopped teaching for awhile in 1960 and concentrated on writing. His own favorite among his novels. The Dark Mountains, which concerned coal mining, was written during this period and published in 1963.
“It sold more hardback copies than any other book I've written and yet it got the least favorable reviews,” he said. “I think there is a bias among reviewers against conservative books, and this one was sympathetic to the mine owner. People still write me for that book. I sent out 12 or 15 this past Christmas. So although the book got the least favorable reviews, it is still living.”
Yancey's War, Hoffman’s fifth novel, concentrates on an antihero and is another World War II story. It was published in 1966.
Hoffman said he never counsels any of his students to be writers.
“It’s much too risky,” he philosophizes. “If they’re going to do it, they’ll do it whether anyone tells them to or not. This profession is one of feast and famine. There are lean years, too.
“More often than you think, I see students with a great deal of talent. There are so many bright young people, with good educations, and the temptation is not to put in the years necessary to be a writer. It takes character, too.”
Trying to “teach” someone to write is a misnomer, according to Hoffman.
“I can only give my students the discipline,” he said. “If you write a great deal, you have to learn something about writing. And you must learn to read. I don’t do as much reading as I would like anymore.”
He agrees with those who say every book is autobiographical to a certain extent, although he said he has never taken one character and “dwelt on him.”
“Instead, I put characteristics together,” he said. “I might take a trait from one person I’ve known, another from someone else. I like a well plotted story. I think plot and character are very important.”
Hoffman said he writes rapidly and then rewrites many times. Once one of his books has been published, he cannot make himself go back and read it again.
Hoffman’s wife is from Bluefield, West Virginia. She met the author while visiting an aunt in Farmville, and they were married in 1957. Her father had visited as a boy in the house the Hoffmans now own and had slept in one of the bedrooms.
The Hoffmans have made some changes in the house.
“We painted, wallpapered, scrubbed down the old floors, removed partitions, to restore it as much as possible to its original appearance,” said Mrs. Hoffman.
Among the furnishings are a number of family pieces and other antiques.
Hoffman raises vegetables, and each year makes wine from his white and blue grapes. He and his wife spend leisure hours horseback riding.
Always at the center of Hoffman’s life, though, is his writing and his devotion to it.
“To me, every book—even the bad—is a sort of miracle,” he said with near reverence. “Out of paper and ink, the author creates life.”
SOURCE: “The Intolerable Wrestle,” in Modern Age, Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter, 1972, pp. 109-11.
[In the following review of A Walk to the River, Buffington discusses Hoffman's Southern concerns and prose style, finding shortcomings in the novel's dramatization.]
William Hoffman is one of the writers indicted in Floyd C. Watkins’ The Death of Art: Black and White in the Recent Southern Novel (University of Georgia Press, 1970). Professor Watkins’ thesis, simple to argue, is that the fictions of Hoffman, Carson McCullers, Elizabeth Spencer, Harper Lee, Jesse Hill Ford, Peter S. Feibleman, and others, including even William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren in some of their late work, fail both on the side of truth and on the side of art in their representations of the South according to liberal stereotypes. Hoffman’s first novel, Trumpet Unblown, is an example, says Watkins, of the way these writers “usually reject the entire Southern tradition.” In A Place for My Head—praised by The Saturday Review because “it points up the bitterness, the blindness, the stubborn pride, and the fear gripping the modern-day South”—“white and black are both so evil that little good can be found to praise in either race. … ‘All that’s left in the world,’” one of the characters says, “‘is bastards.’”
In A Walk to the River, however, Hoffman affirms the Southern tradition, insofar as that means reverence for the land and loyalty to family and to place. At the conclusion of the novel the narrator-protagonist is shocked to realize that his young son has turned the family store into an imitation of the junky, and not quite scrupulous, Progress Store up the street:
“I was running this store before you had bat brains,” I said. “So was my father and grandfather. And if we can’t have dignity here, then by God we’ll go out of business. … We’re LeJohns, and our people been living in this town for almost two hundred years. We’ll go to the poorhouse before we whore to make money.” …
As I became calmer, I started to feel guilt. Because if he didn’t know any better than to whore himself, it was my fault. I failed to teach him.
Hoffman’s central theme is more ambitious than that, however; it is theological, rather than sociological. The novel to compare Hoffman’s novel to is Warren’s All the King’s Men. Like Warren’s narrator-protagonist Jack Burden, Jackson LeJohn is at the beginning of the novel “a dead man,” by his own description, on whom is placed the burden of a responsibility he does not want. The minister of his church in Black Leaf, Virginia, has been accused of assaulting the wife of the town’s most prominent citizen, the church’s chief benefactor; as chairman of the board of officers, LeJohn must conduct an investigation, which leads him into a detective’s kind of research, like Jack Burden’s, into the minister’s past.
The minister cannot deny the disparity between his past life and his present vocation: “If you believe your own religion,” he tells the church officers, “you must accept the fact that thieves, whores, and murderers can be saved.” And he is not in a position to disprove the present charge against him, which is false. Finally he can only ask to be believed on faith. The officers and the congregation are unable to believe him, or, in some cases, do not want to believe him; and he and his family are forced to leave Black Leaf.
“Nothing goes past theology,” the minister tells LeJohn early in the novel. By the end of All the King’s Men, the various interests—personal, political, philosophical—merge in the theological, all in terms of Jack Burden’s growing into knowledge. But Hoffman’s novel does not achieve that ultimate merger. There is LeJohn’s detective search, which allows Hoffman to practice his considerable skill at minor characterization and comic incident; there is LeJohn’s relationship with his son; and there is his relationship with a young woman teacher from the North, whom he courts as a stepmother for his son. It is hard to say what the two subplots have to do with the problem of belief that the dismissed minister dramatizes; they conclude rightly, but their movements and their conclusions are independent of the main action.
Hoffman is a serious novelist, but he fails here to imagine an action that can dramatize his full intention. More seriously, he does not commit himself to a language that can take him very far beyond his first intention—into the kind of knowledge that the writer does not know he has. (A good poet knows the experience; the difference between verse and prose is of degree rather than of kind.) Henry James, writing in 1886, wondered at William Dean Howells’ idea that style in fiction was coming to matter less and less. “Why less and less? … The style of a novel is part of the execution of a work of art; the execution of a work of art is part of its very essence, and that, it seems to me, must have mattered in all ages in exactly the same degree, and be destined always to do so.” Hoffman’s style is of a very simple order, a matter of laying sentence upon sentence, sometimes in the way that a freshman composition student might do it:
The buildings lay alongside the river. Around the property was a high wire fence. A silver water tank stuck up like a great tulip. I turned in at the gate and drove to the parking lot in front of the office. I opened the car door for Sutter.
Five consecutive simple sentences, with the only variation in the compound predicate of the fourth. Such a style keeps the pace fast, even when it might be more appropriate to slow it down. No detail of scene, or character, or action is dwelt upon long enough to induce reflection and to yield the further meanings that hover about our sensible world—the “other echoes,” in T. S. Eliot’s words, that
inhabit the garden. Shall we follow? Quick, said the bird, find them, find them, Round the corner. Through the first gate …
The way is through language, “the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings.”
I am glad that Hoffman in his new novel does not seek his meanings in the current sociological abstractions. But when we think of those abstractions as perversions of our language (see Orwell), we realize that their opposites are not different abstractions, but the precisions we win our way to, temporarily, in the “intolerable wrestle.”
SOURCE: “The Fugitive Hero in New Southern Fiction,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. XCI, No. 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 439-45.
[In the following excerpt, Davenport offers a positive assessment of The Land That Drank the Rain.]
Being an American, over a century after Henry James’s celebrated remark, is still a complex fate. What is perhaps more noteworthy in our age of easy mobility, mass communication, and increasing national uniformity is that it is still a complex fate—and a virtually unique fate—to be a southerner. More accurately it is a paradoxical fate. The southerner exists at the intersection of two deeply rooted conflicting traditions: on the one hand stand family piety, southern Protestantism, regional loyalty, and attachment to the land; and on the other stands ornery rebelliousness. Take a modern southerner, no matter how sophisticated, and set him down in New York: he is likely to feel like a paroled convict—or perhaps a deposed monarch. Yet if this same exile is brought home to a cozy Sunday dinner with the family in Raleigh or Birmingham, he may well experience acute feelings of suffocation and entanglement. A dilemma of this sort clearly accounts for a great deal of the vitality (to say nothing of the subjects) of recent southern writing.
Everywhere in contemporary southern fiction one encounters flight, escape, rebellion—and yet the opposite tendency is always there, creating tension and demanding satisfaction. The characters are not free to choose between these two claims: they have to bring them to a synthesis or resolution of some sort. Their fate is indeed complex. …
The latest novels by John Ehle and William Hoffman are inversions of the fugitive theme: both involve people who flee toward the South instead of away from it. But of course I am treating the story of entanglement and flight here as a thematic preoccupation rather than a plot formula, and from that standpoint these fictions obviously have close affinities with a novel such as Heading West. …
The Land That Drank the Rain, William Hoffman’s eighth novel, resembles The Winter People [by John Ehle] in that it is set in a timeless primitive community—a barren coal-mining region in eastern Kentucky—and involves the flight south of a nonsoutherner. Actually the flight is eastward in this case: Claytor Carson is a sophisticated Californian who has come to this barren spot, sick unto death with self-loathing over his debauched west-coast existence, and in search of purgation or oblivion. He tries to divest himself of everything and to become wholly self-sufficient in his crude hermitage. He even gives up language, refusing to read his mail, avoiding books of instruction that might help him in his new life, and posing to the people of the mining village, Crowtown, as a mute. The reader gradually understands his previous life as fragmentary memories of it come into his mind, and realizes the depths of depravity to which he and his wife Bea had sunk. His strong sense of guilt—a guilt which makes him seem more southern than Californian—has driven him into this silent wasteland in the hope of attaining emptiness.
But even here Carson can’t escape involvement: he is visited by his former business partner, and eventually by his wife—who is as depraved as ever and who tries to bring him back to his former ways. The most remarkable intruder into his world, however, and one of the most original and moving characters in recent fiction, is a young man of the area whose name is Vestil Skank, but who calls himself Nash Shawnee. His relationship with Claytor is bizarre: it is often antagonistic, and yet they are obviously drawn to each other. Throughout most of the action Vestil conducts a wild monologue—for Claytor never replies until the end of the book—in which he makes clear his frustrated obsession with escaping from this place, just as Claytor had wanted to escape to it. He needs money—of which Claytor still has a large sum—to escape. “I could go into the mines,” he says; “I’m not scared to work coal, but I’m scared once I get in I’ll never get out. Once a man goes under that old mountain, she won’t turn him loose. Oh, God, I got to get out. Jesus, ain’t anybody listening? I got to go!” It is through Vestil, and through the heroic sacrifice that Claytor finally makes for him, that Claytor is restored to the world of human involvement.
Few contemporary writers have anything like William Hoffman’s transparency of style and narration. He comes very close to the almost unattainable ideal, once stated by Ford Madox Ford, of giving a reader “the conviction that he was listening to a simple and in no way brilliant narrator who was telling—not writing—a true story”; and this attainment is even more remarkable because the fictional universe in which Hoffman operates at his best is bizarre and unreal. The reader constantly finds himself believing the unbelievable. One of the most striking examples of this element in The Land That Drank the Rain is seen in Vestil’s attempt to get Claytor to back him financially in his projected career (one of many) as songwriter and singer. The reluctant Claytor, temporarily trapped on one bank of an isolated river, is forced to witness a strange audition: “I don’t expect you to buy me blind,” Vestil calls to him from the other side; “you get a free show.” And what a show it is! There, in the middle of the wilderness, a figure on one side of a nameless river watches a figure on the other side as he beats his red, white, and blue guitar, leaps about, howls, and sings his crazy songs:
Won’t wait no longer In the woods near your door, Cause I’m going into darkness Of Hell’s hot floor, But surely I’ll meet you When you drop flaming from the brink, And when you raise your mouth for water, I’ll give you my blood to drink.
Such writing, like much of the work of Ehle and [Doris] Betts, is no more simply fantastic than it is simply realistic. It is at once familiar and strange, real and unreal, temporal and timeless. In fact, although I hesitate to use a term so glibly applied nowadays to such a variety of situations, it is mythic. The degree to which it attains to myth, and the comparatively natural and unstudied manner in which it does so, is unusual in recent fiction. And I would suggest, finally, that this distinction partly results from energies and tensions which yet survive, at least for the time being, in the tradition of southern writing.
Brad Sullivan (date 28 July 1985)
SOURCE: “Godfires is about Value Struggles in Virginia,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, July 28, 1985, p. F5.
[In the following brief review, Sullivan lauds Godfires for its gripping plot and its examination of characters struggling with their own Puritanical values and inner passionate feelings.]
In Godfires, William Hoffman takes a big bite of rural Virginia, chews it up good, and spits out a bunch of seeds. It is a tale of value struggles, a tale of life.
The mysterious death of a wealthy resident of Tobaccoton, a small Virginia town, leads to an investigation that penetrates beneath the mask of Southern hospitality and propriety to a darker, private force marked with religious and sexual obsession.
Howell County authorities discover the dead body of Vin Farr, dressed in a blue summer blazer, looking serene. He is lying in the grass on the unpopulated side of a local stream, without a boat or other transportation nearby. His body is unmarked except for tiny abrasions on one toe and one finger; the autopsy yields no evidence of foul play.
Billy Payne, the heavy-drinking commonwealth's attorney of Howell County, has lost a bundle of cases in a row and sees this investigation as a chance to make points with a public that is beginning to doubt his capabilities.
It is also an opportunity to reacquaint himself with Vin's wife, Rhea Gatlin, whom he has loved secretly for years and years. She is an elegant Southern belle known for her generosity, her regular church attendance and her native beauty and grace.
As Billy investigates Vin's death, he comes across puzzling clues: a large check, signed by Vin and made out to a black militant religious order, a small silver angel found near the spot where the dead body was recovered; and a lewd tattoo, partially hidden by hair, on a private part of Vin's body.
These clues lead Billy into a labyrinth of sexual desire and religious obsession. He suspects that Vin's sexuality played a role in his death but he has great difficulty broaching the subject with Rhea, the pure, ideal woman of his romantic vision.
His efforts carry out an effective investigation in a town that turns against public figures when they're not in church on Sunday—a town that boasts of 23 churches for fewer than 3,000 people—lead to a very interesting narrative.
Hoffman, who lives in Charlotte Court House, plays these tensions for all they're worth, creating a gripping story about the unyielding Puritanical heritage that still exists in many public places and the passionate revolts against it that take place in private.
Godfires is an entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking book.
SOURCE: “About Any Kind of Meanness You Can Name,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. XCIII, No. 4, Fall, 1985, pp. 649-56.
[In the following excerpt, Sullivan commends Hoffman's prose style but finds Godfires to be a reprise of well-worn views and attitudes about the contemporary American South.]
The three novels discussed here are all more or less southern, but otherwise they are about as different as they could be. The hero of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, from which I take my title, is born in Tennessee, but the action of the novel occurs in the American West. Lewis Green's The Silence of Snakes is set in the mountains of North Carolina between the world wars, and its themes are traditionally southern. William Hoffman’s novel, [Godfires,] laid in rural Virginia with occasional incursions into Richmond, engages the ambiguities of the modern South.
In one of its dimensions Godfires is a novel of detection. Billy Payne, the commonwealth’s attorney in Howell County, Virginia, is a man on the skids at thirty-five, a failed yuppie who is likely to be out of work after the next election. His quotidian life moves from his office, where the local preachers urge him to suppress pornography and to discover and prosecute juveniles who make love in the byways, to his home, where he lives with his father in drunken acrimony equally shared. Billy’s mother is dead; his marriage wound up in shambles, as did his career as a corporation lawyer. His father, who falsely claims to be a combat veteran of World War II, chastises him not only for his failures but for his cowardice: he did a stretch in seminary to avoid the draft during the Vietnam war.
Vin Farr is the antithesis of Billy: rich, handsome, a decorated Air Force veteran, husband of the wealthiest and most beautiful girl around, with whom Billy has been secretly in love for as long as he can remember. But fortunes change, and at the beginning of the story Vin Farr is dead, his body left on a river bank; and with whatever help he can get from the coroner and others, Billy must find out how Vin died and who, if anybody, killed him. This is the thrust of the story, but there are not many suspects in the case, and the mystery of what kind of man Vin Farr was is soon exhausted. There is Billy’s love for Vin’s widow, Rhea, but early in the story Rhea reveals that she returns Billy’s love. Consequently the novel largely survives on its images, the people and places that Billy uncovers in the course of his investigation.
Hoffman is a good writer, but finding something fresh to say about backwoods sheriffs and fundamentalist preachers, black supremacists and the miscegenation of the gentry is a problem. One of the difficulties in writing about the South is that there is not much left about it to discover. Writers often say that they write to find out what they think, but now most novelists who try to write about the South know from the beginning what they think and how they feel about almost any circumstance or situation that they might encounter. Hoffman made up his mind about race relations and the Moral Majority long ago: his views are identical with those of almost all other artists and intellectuals not only in this country but in the world. My point is not that his views are wrong but that they are conventional and even procrustean. His dialogue is good; his detail is sharp; his narrative pace and his style are impressive. But the sense of déja vu is frequently distracting.
This is not to say that this novel is devoid of innovation. From the beginning it is obvious that Vin’s death was not natural, and there is only one real suspect among the personae. But the method by which Vin is killed and the motive for the killing are surprising. And, as I have indicated, the detective story is merely the hook. Billy’s father is a rich character and never better than when he brings himself fearfully to admit that he was not in combat after all but served with the quarter-masters. Eddie Blue, a young black, is well drawn. He steals the Paynes’ tea service, melts it down, and sells the silver, but he keeps the sugar bowl, even when he is in the swamp trying to escape from the police, because nobody in his family has ever had anything like it. Rhea is convincingly drawn, and Hoffman is able to convey to the reader her air of refined sensuality that renders Billy inarticulate when he is in her presence.
Hoffman’s Billy Payne is typical of heroes of recent southern novels, and he is as out of joint with his time and place as Hamlet. He can respect some of the blacks around him, but only after they demand respect of him. To him rednecks are rednecks and not good country people. The rich are selfish and callous, and the clergy are either vapid or fascist. Only a rebel here and there, an isolated soul out of tune with the backwardness of rural Virginia, gets Hoffman’s imprimatur. At the end of Godfires Billy commits homicide, accidentally in a way, in an effort to assert the morality of the code of criminal justice he has sworn to uphold. This is on target, I believe: in a world filled with moral uncertainties, what else have we to guide us except the law? But I wish there were more. I wish Billy’s life had another dimension.
SOURCE: “Spirit Prevails in Well-Crafted Tales,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, April 3, 1988, p. F5.
[In the following review of By Land, By Sea, Merritt praises Hoffman's abilities as a literary craftsman and poignant storyteller.]
William Hoffman is an old-fashioned writer, and this seems to account for both the pleasures of his stories and for some of their annoying traits.
Being an old-fashioned writer from Virginia—Hoffman lives in Charlotte County and was for seven years writer-in-residence at Hampden-Sydney College—means that these stories are close to the land and occasionally to the Chesapeake Bay, and they belong to the sense of place that has always played such an important role in Southern literature.
Being an old-fashioned writer from the South also means that many of Hoffman's stories tend to be a bit overdone in their use of words. Southerners tend to love a good adjective, and if they can find two, three or four, then all the better. It can get a bit annoying, but then that's part of the genre.
Beyond all of this, however, Hoffman's dozen stories [in By Land, By Sea] display an honest compassion for the people he creates on the page. In their clashes between values of the past and present, in their struggle to retain their ties to the land and sea at times when the modern world seems opposed to such simple concerns, and in their struggle to maintain a sense of self and family, Hoffman delivers stories that stand with the purest of Southern literary ideals.
Some of these stories have appeared in prestigious reviews—Sewanee Review and the Virginia Quarterly Review—while others have made it to the slicker world of Atlantic Monthly and McCalls, but the voices, for all their variety, remain consistent.
It is an aging manufacturer who tells us the story of “Lover” as he desperately attempts to regain his youth through an unrealistic relationship with a young girl. Then it's a fisherman's wife who watches the comings and goings of a young couple in “Moorings.”
“Landfall,” which may be the class entry of the collection, is a sad story of an ailing, elderly couple as they make a last trip on the beloved sailboat they're about to sell. On what begins as a harmless cruise along the New England coast, we gradually see how the boat is the thing that has held the marriage together all these years, and when this final voyage takes them into an ice storm, neither has the will to do battle with nature.
Battles play an important subtext to many of the stories. “Cuttings” is the story of a decorated Vietnam veteran who must overcome the softness of the Southern city by reproving his bravery against the white oak that has died and threatens his beach cottage. And in “Patriot,” the enemy of a coal miner is not of a physical nature but rather the destructive values that seek to erode his love of the country.
Even the weakest of Hoffman'’s people display the strengths of the Southern tradition. The sick and cynical former convict of “Smoke” must come to live with his sister's family and, through one of those rare quirks of nature, manages to instill a new sense of honor in those for whom he has only represented shame.
And in “The Question of Rain,” a minister who has always backed his faith with an intellectual sophistication must redefine his relationship not only to his congregation but also to his faith when he is asked to hold a special service to pray for rain.
While so much contemporary fiction features the crumbling weaknesses of modern life, perhaps the greatest attribute of these old-fashioned efforts is the willpower and the survival of the spirit that these people represent.
Hoffman is a craftsman. With his eye for detail, his simplicity of dialogue and in the poignant clarity of his messages, he shows us not only a South as it was, but also a South as it is. An added fascination is how Hoffman's people are Virginia people, living in places that will be familiar to readers of the Piedmont and the Bay.
SOURCE: “Southside Life Inspires Author,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, May 15, 1988, pp. C1–C2.
[In the following review, Neuberger relates how Hoffman enjoys living in a small, agrarian community in Virginia, and discusses the inspiration Hoffman draws from the landscape and the people around him.]
Like almost everyone else in this small Southside town. Bill Hoffman can be seen each morning ambling to the post office, greeting others along the way.
In the afternoons, Hoffman will do chores around the small farm he and his wife share with their horses, dogs and cats.
But a typical resident of Southside, Hoffman is not.
He’s the author of nine novels and dozens of short stories, some collected in the recently published By Land, by Sea.
With the countryside just outside his office window, Hoffman has penned a pile of tales focusing on life in rural Virginia communities. The places often bear a striking resemblance to towns like Farmville and Charlotte Court House.
“I’ve lived here so long, it’s part of me now,” says Hoffman, a native of West Virginia who adopted Southside Virginia as his home about 35 years ago.
White-haired and easygoing at 62, Hoffman is settled into the unhurried life around this town of fewer than 600 people. He and his wife, Sue, reared two daughters, and once raised cattle, vegetables, even grapes for their own wine.
Tending to their four-footed charges and looking after the 50-acre farm and its pre-Civil War farmhouse, the Hoffmans stay busy. Occasionally, they find time to ride horses through the woods and fields that hug the town.
“Living here is something I chose to do,” Hoffman said in an interview in his wood-paneled office. “I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., and New York City, but it really didn’t seem to me a very civilized life. I began to yearn for some space and a different kind of life, and I think I pretty much found it over here.”
What he found was more than just the space and pace he longed for. “I like the kindness of the people and the patience that people in an agricultural community have.”
Hoffman, a Presbyterian who attends one of the community’s seven churches, also likes the importance of church and religious faith in the lives of people in this rural area. “These people here are seriously searching for spiritual answers. Here, there is a definite spiritual undergirding.”
In his most recent novel, Godfires, Hoffman pokes fun at the excesses of religious fanatics. Yet his portrait of Aunt Lettie, a hard-working woman with a deep faith, reflects his admiration for the personal search for spirituality.
There’s no mistaking how life and people in rural Virginia have influenced Hoffman's work.
Once, a friend got peeved when he thought he recognized himself in one of Hoffman'’s books. The author maintains that his characters are composites with traits drawn from many people he has known.
An especially humorous portrait of a local official appears in Godfires as Hoffman describes fictional Howell County Sheriff Burton Pickney:
“The sheriff sat at his oak desk, a man whose flesh was so loose it seemed the only thing holding him together was his rumpled tan uniform. Unbutton his shirt or drop his pants and he would've flowed across the floor like lard melting in a skillet.”
Hoffman also drawn heavily on places he knows best. The fictional Howell County might easily be recognized by Southside residents as Charlotte County.
The Chesapeake Bay has provided another backdrop. That's not surprising since the Hoffmans own a cottage on the bay in Mathews, where they go each month to sail, fish and put out crab pots.
Back in Charlotte Court House, people say the hometown author enjoys a strong following. The libraries carry Hoffman's books, and a review of By Land, by Sea hangs prominently in the one just a stone's throw from his farm.
“Our people around here are very proud of Mr. Hoffman,” said Josephine Locke, acting librarian. “We have all his books, and people are now going back and reading the old ones. We just think he's great.”
Beyond Virginia, numerous works by Hoffman have fared well. More than half of his books also have been published as paperbacks, and The Trumpet Unblown was published in several languages.
One producer bought the movie rights to Trumpet, and others have discussed making films based on Hoffman novels. But film plans have never gotten off the ground.
Hoffman's short stories have appeared in magazines such as Atlantic Monthly,McCall's and Cosmopolitan, as well as the Virginia Quarterly Review and Sewanee Review.Sewanee, a top literary magazine, has published more stories by Hoffman than by any other writer.
Critically, his books have been warmly received. For example, the New York Times named his second novel, Days in the Yellow Leaf, one of 1958's best books.
Nonetheless, at least one ardent fan believes Hoffman hasn't gotten the commercial and critical attention he deserves.
A Longwood College professor, Dr. William Frank, says, “It continually surprises me that a writer with his range and very impressive list of novels and short stories continues to remain relatively unrecognized.”
Hoffman once thought that any worthwhile work would inevitably find its audience. Now he recognizes that his books may have suffered commercially because he chose to live a relatively secluded life, removed from the publishing industry.
“I don't belong to any writing clique. I think I fail to get things published and reviewed,” he said
A trim man with a small frame and informal attire, Hoffman is modest. The idea of promoting his writing doesn't sit well with him. “I hate to do that. It somehow doesn't seem like you should have to.”
Dr. Frank hopes a symposium September 12–14 featuring Hoffman's works will bring him wider attention. Sponsored by Longwood and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, it will be held at Longwood and Hampden-Sydney colleges. Scholars and critics will discuss selected stories and novels, and Hoffman will give a reading.
Hoffman's books have been used regularly in courses at Hampden-Sydney and Longwood. Yet even in Southside, it’s not easy to find his earliest books, some of which have been out of print for more than 20 years.
Hoffman occasionally will hear from someone looking for his books. In fact, the author has been looking for extra copies so he can leave each of his daughters a complete set.
One famous fan has helped. Singer Bruce Hornsby sent Hoffman a copy of Trumpet after finding three at a bookstore in the Los Angeles area.
The son of a coal miner, Hoffman was raised by his grandmother in Charleston, West Virginia. The coalfields later became the setting of his fourth novel, The Dark Mountains.
Hoffman's flair for writing emerged in high school at Kentucky Military Institute. Word got around that he could skillfully craft a love letter and his classmates began asking for help with notes to girlfriends.
At 18, he was drafted and sent to an ambulance unit in Europe during World War II. His wartime experience inspired him to write. The Trumpet Unblown, his first published novel. Hoffman's long adjustment after returning home led him to write Days in the Yellow Leaf.
Hoffman graduated from Hampden-Sydney in 1949. Thinking he wanted to become a lawyer, he enrolled in Washington and Lee University’s law school. It was during a creative writing course there that “something clicked. I felt that this was something I was attuned to.”
He settled in a small apartment in Farmville, but his efforts to carve out a writing career foundered. He worked briefly for the Washington Star in Washington and for the Chase National Bank in New York before returning to Hampden-Sydney as an English instructor in 1952.
During seven years of teaching, Hoffman met his wife, Alice Sue Richardson, and had his first two novels published. He left the college to concentrate on writing and published three more novels.
The Hoffmans bought their farmhouse in 1964, the year Hoffman returned to Hampden-Sydney for seven years as writer-in-residence.
After years of writing full time, Hoffman has a well-established routine. He rises before the sun and sits in a worn wooden swivel chair to work on a novel. In the afternoon, he turns to a short story. Writing for short, concentrated periods, he works for no more than three hours a day.
He does his writing on a manual typewriter, a gray Royal he has owned for 20 years. There’s an identical machine at the cottage in Mathews. In this age of computers, Hoffman has never wanted a word processor. “The way I work suits me,” he says.
Manuscripts of two novels are circulating among publishers. One is set in Virginia and West Virginia, the other in Richmond and central Virginia. Another book—“now in the typewriter,” he says—is set mostly in Richmond.
For Hoffman, writing is not so much a job as a calling. He doesn’t talk of retirement; he plans to write as long as he has an audience.
“Chances are good as I grow older and when there are signs that what I write isn't wanted, I’ll just quit. But I don’t think I'll ever quit because I've run out of ideas. I've never been to a point where I can't write about something.”
SOURCE: “Wonderful Geographies,” in Georgia Review, Vol. 43, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 406-16.
[In the following excerpt, Johnson offers a favorable evaluation of By Land, By Sea, though arguing that some of the stories “lapse into melodrama.”]
“The truth is,” Eudora Welty has written, “fiction depends for its life on place.” Her well-known essay, “Place in Fiction,” champions the significance of a story’s setting: “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.” The importance of location, according to Welty, transcends any critical commonplaces about “regional” writing or “verisimilitude.” Referring to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County but also to Emily Brontë’s Yorkshire moors and Flaubert’s French villages, Welty suggests that the mythologized landscape underlying any great novel or story is the primary source of its emotional power. Far from betraying a limited or parochial viewpoint, a clearly defined fictional geography provides the essential grounding for authentic human character and action. In 1972, Welty told an interviewer that she didn’t mind being called a regional writer, since she viewed the notion of regionalism in this larger context: “I just think of myself writing about human beings and I happen to live in a region, as do we all, so I write about what I know—it’s the same case for any writer living anywhere.”
When Ernest Hemingway made his famous remark that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” he was similarly acknowledging the specifically regional character of American fiction since the Civil War. Our country’s distinctive regions and their literary representatives—Twain’s Mississippi river towns, the New England of Sarah Orne Jewett and other local colorists, Hamlin Garland’s Midwest, Bret Harte’s Far West, and most famously the deep South of Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor—stand at the center of our cultural heritage and exert a powerful influence even today, despite the rapid blurring of America’s regions into a relatively homogenous whole. Discussing her famous story about the Medgar Evers assassination (“Where Is the Voice Coming From?”), Welty suggested that certain social and historical concerns can be discussed accurately only by a writer intimately familiar with both the geographical and moral landscape: “When that murder was committed, it suddenly crossed my consciousness that I knew what was in that man’s mind because I’d lived all my life where it happened. It was the strangest feeling of horror and compulsion all in one. I tried to write from the interior of my own South.” The story, which re-creates convincingly the voice of racial hatred, illuminates a specific regional and historical moment as it simultaneously uncovers a fundamental truth of human nature.
The American South continues to be the best represented of all regions, in terms of both the quality and quantity of fiction by its authors. Four of the five short-story writers reviewed here have staked out their own postage stamps of Southern earth—William Hoffman’s Virginia countryside, Bobbie Ann Mason’s western Kentucky, Bo Ball’s Appalachian hollows, and Lewis Nordan’s Mississippi Delta towns—while the fifth, Reginald McKnight, writes of black Americans who have spread across the globe but are united in what might be termed a region of consciousness. Of all the classic American regions, the South, even in its much-publicized manifestations as the “New South,” has perhaps clung most stubbornly to its identity. Its writers have enjoyed the richest imaginable literary heritage, one that can be disabling as well as inspiring, but which guarantees special attention to any “new voice” that bears a recognizably Southern accent.
William Hoffman’s By Land, by Sea is set mostly in rural Virginia and in towns along the Chesapeake Bay. In this colorful, sparely written collection, human beings and their environment are intimately related, envisioned as inseparable and mutually enriching (or, fairly often, mutually defeating) partners in an ongoing and inescapable symbiosis. Hoffman focuses on two major themes. One is this relationship between humankind and a frequently intractable Nature, as in “Cuttings,” which tells of a man’s struggle to fell an enormous oak tree, and “A Question of Rain,” wherein a congregation prevails upon a reluctant minister to initiate a communal prayer for rain in the midst of a long drought. The second theme is the social conflict arising between the fundamentalist values of country folk and the more liberal, “sophisticated” morality of the college-educated and city-bred. This conflict is typified by “Moorings,” in which a wealthy Norfolk couple moves to the bay area and quickly provokes mistrust among the locals. “The young couple wont our people, not just clothes or tongue,” observes the narrator, Josie, who watches helplessly as her husband surrenders to the couple’s undeniable glamour and sexual allure.
Most of Hoffman’s stories are distinguished by strong plots, sharply defined characters, and a hard-edged yet supple prose style that evokes both the beauty and harshness of his region. His paragraphs are notably brief, seldom longer than eight printed lines; this stylistic habit prevents self-indulgent natural or emotional description and suggests the general principle of restraint that governs Hoffman’s writing. It also suggests a habit of observation that is shrewdly contained and concentrated, and that gives many of these tales the resonating power of small fables. Often reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s work, they suggest the preeminence of fate, at once magisterial and indifferent as it controls both human beings and nature, and brings them into frequent collision. Perhaps the most eerily beautiful story is “Landfall”: an elderly man and his dying wife sail deliberately northward, along New England and finally the Canadian coast, seeing their final destiny “in the court of the gods—majestic, white-robed divines, who loomed with resplendent grace on a tossing, steel blue sea.”
Although Hoffman’s notable strength is his bold, at times quasi-allegorical juxtaposition of elemental human passions and natural forces—notable especially at a time when pretentiously vague and indeterminate narrative is the fashion—he does, on occasion, lapse into melodrama, particularly in such stories as “Lover” and “Moorings,” whose violent endings are intended to shock the reader but instead merely strain his credibility. Scenes of lurid violence or sexual passion, common in certain other contemporary writers, are simply not Hoffman’s forte. Rather, his best work achieves power through its narrative simplicity. One fine example is “Indian Gift,” a taut drama of moral conflict involving a small-time farmer who, sacrificing to send his son to the University of Virginia, is seduced by a local huckster into buying a stolen tractor. In “Faces at the Window” and “Altarpiece,” Hoffman tells of a divorcée and a widower, respectively, who struggle between a desire to maintain social decorum and emotional safety, and sudden opportunities to renew their lives as passionate and sexual beings. Such stories exemplify Hoffman’s skill—evident throughout most of this collection—at rendering individual lives caught up in forces that have moved beyond their recognition and control. …
Like the best work of Hoffman, Mason, Ball, and McKnight, Lewis Nordan’s collection extends the tradition of American regional writing without, for the most part, lapsing into slavish imitation of such formidable predecessors as Twain and Faulkner. Although the stories of Mississippi River life and of Yoknapatawpha County must reverberate powerfully in the minds of any regional writers, especially if they are Southern, all five of these authors provide a unique angle of vision on a nation which is only the sum of its variegated postage stamps of earth. When their work succeeds, the reason is not that they focus upon regional concerns but that, to borrow Nordan’s phrase, each has conveyed the “wonderful geography” of his own imagination.
SOURCE: “Hoffman Doesn't Dodge Life,” in the Farmville Herald, March 21, 1990, pp. A1, A3.
[The following review of Furors Dieprovides a plot summary of the novel and lauds Hoffman's abilities as a skilled writer, praising his proficiency with symbolism, language, satire, and setting.]
To the followers of the fiction of William Hoffman, it will come as no surprise that he has dedicated his latest novel—his tenth, Furors Die—to his former minister and his wife. In the first place, Bill Hoffman has always been interested in, and, in his fiction, has never dodged questions of a moral, philosophical, or theological nature: One recalls immediately Tod Young of Days in the Yellow Leaf, Jackson LeJohn of A Walk To the River, Claytor Carson of The Land That Drank the Rain, and Billy Payne of Godfires. But there is a second and more compelling reason for such a dedication—apart from a long-term friendship—and that is that Furors Die can be read as a parable on the seven deadly sins, with special emphasis on pride, avarice (or greed) and lust.
The story is essentially a richly detailed account of the growing up and coming to age of its two main characters, Wylie Duval and Amos “Pinky” Cody. Wylie has it all—and at a early age: new cars, easy girls, country club life-style. Overly influenced by a frenzied and aggressive mother, a member of a Pentecostal religious sect; Pinky outwardly chastises and condemns everything that Wylie represents: yet inwardly and secretly he covets and envies Wylie’s youthful boozing and sexual liberty: Without contriving encounters or incidents, Hoffman skillfully weaves a plotline that keeps the two constantly together, so that the reader may discover for himself the gradual weighing and shifting of values on the part of Pinky and the attempts on Wylie's part to dissociate himself from Pinky.
Because Pinky worked through high school as an office-and-errand boy for Wylie’s father, and especially because Pinky on one occasion talked a frustrated and slightly deranged tenant out of holding Wylie's father as a hostage, Mr. Duval sends Pinky to Wylie's prep school in Virginia, White Oak, expecting Wylie to “look after Pinky.” Although Wylie resents his situation he reluctantly agrees to his father's request, thus bringing the two boys into a relationship that allows the seeds of future discord to take deep root.
There are no heroes in this novel, at least not in the twentieth century sense of the term. Neither of the book's two central characters can really understand the other, and neither makes any solid attempt to try. On the occasion of the death of Pinky's father, an event that went unnoticed by Wylie for several months, Wylie tells Pinky. “I'm so damn sorry.” To which Pinky replies, summing up Wiley’s attitude and concern in a sentence, “Not really. You want to be because that's the correct attitude, but you never knew my father and never cared to … He didn't have the grace and style you find as necessary as air … in all the years since White Oak, you've never once asked about him—whether he was dead or alive.”
And yet Wylie is not a bad guy, an evil person. In the best tradition of the “southern gentleman” he is a well-mannered, sociable, highly successful businessman, a regular at Sunday Church, a better-than-average tennis player, a generous husband—in short, as Pogo might say, he is one of us. But like too many of us in a materialistic dominated, yuppie society, (as Trish tells him on one occasion) “We’re not moral people … It's not your moral code that's hurt, it's your pride.” Pride, covetousness, lust, anger … they're all in this novel, with almost every character major and minor, afflicted with each to varying degrees.
Ultimately, however, Furors Die is not just a parable on the seven deadly sins: it is also, and perhaps even primarily, a satire on a greedy, mechanistic, materialistic, sick society—a society as doomed as the grand schemes and airy monuments built by both the Pinkys and the Wylies of our world.
The many fans of Hoffman's fiction in this area will be pleased to know that his way with words is as powerful and taut as ever. Hoffman is able to convey in a sentence, a phrase, a lightning simile, a striking metaphor, a world of meaning: of Wylie's marriage to Anne—“There would be no burnout in this marriage because there was no fire. Good sense and respect would dominate.” Or of Wylie's mother following the death of her husband—“She roamed the house chasing memories.” Or of Trish's assessment of her New York stage fellow thespians—“They could look so stylish and beautiful on stage, but afterwards they resembled damaged rubber toys somebody had let the air out of.”
It's all here in Furors Die—characters, setting, plot, masterful and economical language, and much more to which a relatively brief review can never do justice. For example, there's symbol and symbolism: Note “Wylie” for cunning, crafty, slippery, smooth—as one of his friends tells him. “You know what, Wylie, you look as if you’ve been simonized. You’re so slick, you’re shiny.” Or “Amos”—“a grand prophet Amos, warned the Israelites they'd better lead moral lives or … he'd destroy them utterly.” Or the symbolism of setting—note the valley, on the one hand, and the rich and powerful always wanting to build on the hill, on the other. And there are rich and complex themes: “There but for the grace of God go I”; The greed and materialism already mentioned; the frenzied greed of the Nouveau rich; the satirization of a decadent society. And don't be misled by the novel's conclusion: things are not always as they appear to be. Furors Die is one book that will stay with you long after you have finished it and put it aside.
SOURCE: “Old-Fashioned Values,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, May 20, 1990, p. G5.
[In the following brief review of Furors Die, Merritt praises Hoffman's talent for describing character and place, but denounces the novel for its old-fashioned attitudes, particularly in regard to its portrayal of sexual relations.]
When William Hoffman is described as an “old-fashioned” writer, what it means is that he's a Southern writer who tries to maintain the old Southern values—to life, as well as literature—in a changing world. In this, his 10th novel, the former writer-in-residence at Hampden-Sydney College and longtime resident of Charlotte Courthouse tries to tell a modern story in those somewhat dated terms, and he draws both his strengths and weaknesses from the effort.
Corruption is the central theme of Furors Die, and Hoffman uses the oldest plot in the world. He focuses on the lives of two men—the one who has all the advantages and the one who does not—and follows them until the “have-not” is seduced by the money and influence that has been held over him all his life. And, as it must be in such a parable, he pays the consequences.
The setting is a fictitious town in West Virginia, but with lots of Virginia references. The boys are Wylie Duval of a wealthy family and Amos “Pinky” Cody of a poor and deeply religious upbringing. Hoffman creates a narrative voice that follows their lives through 62 psychologically penetrating scenes. He follows them through their teen years, their separate directions in college and marriage, and through Wylie's stability in a stock brokerage firm and Pinky's shift from defender of the poor to his thirst for power.
Hoffman fans will find plenty of the author's special talent: his spare writing, detailed sense of place and ability to find the enobling qualities in human weakness. The problems are in the later part of the story, where parable mars realism and where the author's old-fashioned attitudes about sex and almost silly depictions of drunkardness mar what is otherwise a polished, competent and somewhat dated novel.
SOURCE: “The Fiction of William Hoffman: An Introduction,” in Hollins Critic, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, February, 1991, pp. 1-10.
[In the following essay, Frank provides an overview of the central themes, regional settings and motifs, prose style, and narrative presentation in Hoffman's fiction. Frank's analysis, which aims to enlarge Hoffman's readership, focuses on several representative works—the novels The Trumpet Unblown, The Land That Drank the Rain, and Godfires, and the short story collection By Land, By Sea.]
During the past thirty-five years William Hoffman has published ten novels, two collections of short stories, and over three dozen additional short stories in such quarterlies as the Transatlantic Review,The Virginia Quarterly, and The Sewanee Review; he is perhaps best known to the readers of the latter, for The Sewanee Review has published more short stories by William Hoffman than by any other author. Although Hoffman’s fiction has been the subject of at least one doctoral dissertation and numerous master’s theses, and although reviews of his novels have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time and Newsweek, his work has not received the attention of the critics that it should command. The purpose of this essay, then, is to introduce to a larger audience the fictional world of William Hoffman, focusing on his first novel, The Trumpet Unblown (1955), two recent novels, The Land That Drank The Rain (1982) and Godfires (1985), and his most recent collection of short stories, By Land, By Sea (1988). The first novel, described by the critic Hassell Simpson as one of the finest novels ever written about World War II, deals with a subject and theme identified by both Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway as the most universal of all subjects, war; the second demonstrates that redemption is always possible, even for the most jaded among us; and the third novel recalls the enormous redemptive power of love. These three novels, collectively, together with the short story collection, demonstrate the range, versatility and power of the fiction of William Hoffman. (Hoffman’s other seven novels, in the order of their publication, are Days in the Yellow Leaf (1958), A Place for My Head (1960), The Dark Mountains (1966), Yancey’s War (1966), A Walk to the River (1970), A Death of Dreams (1973), and Furors Die (1990).
Although The Trumpet Unblown is actually Hoffman’s second novel, it is his first published novel. It is largely autobiographical and, ironically, because Bill Hoffman is a gentle, caring man, contains more violence and more gratuitous brutality than any of Hoffman’s other nine novels. Early on in the novel one sees the influence of Hemingway, especially the Hemingway of A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the careful reader also finds the influence of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, especially in scenes and descriptions in Trumpet where men in action in the military hospitals are depicted as mechanical, detached, automaton-like. But although the novel is autobiographical, its protagonist, Tyree Jefferson Shelby, is not William Hoffman. He is a twentieth century version of Crane’s Henry Fleming and becomes in the course of the novel another casualty of war, this time World War II, similar to Hemingway’s Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s impotent casualty of WW I in The Sun Also Rises:
‘I know about the Army, I volunteered for it.’
Moody sighed and took a long drink from the bottle.
‘May I ask why.’
‘What do you mean why?’
‘Why’d you volunteer?’
‘Because it was right, that’s why.’
Moody looked at him a moment, then began to laugh …
‘I’m sorry,’ Moody said between the laughter.
‘I’m sorry but I’d forgotten there were still people who could believe that sort of thing.’
But war, we discover, does more than change idealism—it destroys it. In a scene near the novel’s conclusion, Shelby is back in Richmond, talking with the girl he had left behind, Cannon, who says to him,
‘I was afraid you had fallen in love with some beautiful foreign woman. Did you?’
‘You didn’t fall in love with anybody?’
‘I fell out of love with a lot of people.’
What happens to Shelby between these two scenes is the essence of The Trumpet, and scenes, incidents, encounters throughout the novel reveal in almost incomprehensible and graphic detail the total inhumanity of man toward his fellow human beings. Whether the horror is that of single combat between two individuals or horror inflicted by one people—the Germans who made up the SS—upon another—the Displaced Persons of the Nazi-conquered Slavic states, it is unspeakable. Two examples should more than suffice: in the first, Blizzard, the company bully, tries to break Shelby’s will, using sixteen-ounce gloves that inflict pain without breaking bones or tearing flesh. But Shelby won’t break, so Blizzard leaves off the gloves:
Blizzard lashed him on the ears, and they burned with pain.
Blizzard knocked him through a bed, and as he was getting up hit him in the stomach with an uppercut.
It knocked the wind out, and Shelby half stood, half fell. But Blizzard never gave him a chance to fall. He hit him in the face, and Shelby felt the cartilage in his nose go.
The pain had color and shot through him red, and he realized he was crying and standing with his arms helpless at his sides. It didn’t seem it could go on with so much hurting, and he wished for unconsciousness. But somehow it did go on, and he could no longer breathe.
The second example is more horrific, perhaps only because the brutality exhibited by the Blizzards of the world is multiplied a thousand-fold:
Everything was almost fine until the day the wind changed. That happened late one afternoon, and the wind brought smell across the grass. They all knew the smell and looked at each other. The Germans in the village avoided them that day. It took two more days to find the source of the smell … From a distance it looked like any other concrete barn … When they got close enough to see, other men turned and walked off. The barn was so full of the stinking dead that they were pouring out the doors and windows. The Germans had evidently used flame throwers on them. From what Shelby could tell, the dead looked like Slavs, and perhaps the SS was hard put to get rid of them as the armies closed in. At any rate, the Slavs had been made to lie down in layers on the barn floor until they were stacked high as the windows. Then the flame thrower … The men in the outfit were hard, but none of them had ever seen it this way. Some were sick, and Shelby had to go back down the hill … Moody looked furious and at the same time as if he were about to cry. Nobody said anything. They looked at the barn, then at the steeple of the church in the village. They smelled the charred flesh and remembered the fine dark beer and the laughter of the tavern keeper …
‘I guess we’d better clean up,’ Coger said finally. They followed Coger back to the outfit. Coger got his.45, cocked it, and stuck it in his waist … The others got whatever guns, knives, and clubs they could find. The officers were told, and strapped on sidearms … They skirted the village, placing it between them and the barn. They formed a line like a party of bushbeaters, then entered the village and swept the people before them. No exceptions were made. Women and children as well as the aged had to go. The Germans looked frightened, but they looked as if they knew, too. Some went stoically … Others cried and begged. But they all went. When they got close to the barn, the women began to wail … The men of the outfit pushed them on towards the barn. The Germans were made to take a good look … and children cried and tried to hide behind their mothers. Moody translated Coger’s order; the Germans looked at the ground … The Germans were to collect and bury everything in the barn. They would not be allowed to use shovels or tools of any kind. The tavern keeper broke down and cried like a child.
It took the rest of the day to complete it, and there was much sickness before it was over. Most of the dead had begun to decompose and had to be scraped up and held in the palms of hands. Sometimes there were pieces left over, but everything was buried. The graves were dug by hand too. Men fainted, women sobbed, and children became hysterical. They were all sent back to work …
Finally it was finished, and Coger let the Germans go back to their neat little village with its fine old church and religious paintings. The men of the outfit washed as soon as they could to get the smell off, but there was not enough water in the world to wash off that stink …
After he has witnessed such compelling instances of man’s shame, it is no wonder that Shelby’s very soul is annihilated. Deadened by the war he had volunteered to enter, Shelby “recovers” in a hospital in Europe, and upon his return to the states is sent to a rehabilitation center, where he puts off as long as he can his eventual return to Richmond. Upon his arrival in Richmond, Shelby realizes that Thomas Wolfe was right—“You can’t go home again.”—and Wolfe hadn’t even been to war.
There are no heroes in this novel, only, as Moody has already said, choices between evils, or the lesser of two evils. The book’s title, of course, tells us early on there will be no heroes in this saga of WW II; The Trumpet will not only not blow for Tyree Shelby, it will not blow for any of the assorted characters of death and destruction. Such a rich and complex book has many themes, primary and secondary, but ultimately the book reflects a strength and a belief that despite everything encountered, there will be a tomorrow for humanity, and perhaps—we can at least hope so—a brighter tomorrow. At one point in the novel, Shelby’s friend, Sgt. Moody, who has witnessed all that Shelby has seen, expresses a basic optimism that denies at least some of the lingering horror created by many of the novel’s scenes:
‘You know,’ Moody said one day when he and Shelby were lying in the sun, ‘sometimes I get a crazy thought.’
‘I think maybe the human race will survive in spite of everything.’
‘The sun feels good all right.’
‘That’s what I mean. Maybe there’s hope for a man who can enjoy the sun.’
‘I tell you what. Let’s not talk.’
‘I just want to ask you one question.’
‘All right. One question.’
‘You think we’ll survive in spite of everything?’
‘Today the sun feels pretty good.’
Moody’s comment anticipates, almost ironically, the prayerful belief of another victim of the horrors of the German concentration camp, the remarkable Anne Frank, writing in her diary a scant three weeks before she and her family were placed in a concentration camp where she died shortly before the end of WW II:
It’s twice as hard for us young ones to hold our ground and maintain our opinions, in a time when all ideals are being shattered and destroyed …
It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart … I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too. I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.
In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.
In the quarter of a century that has passed since the publication of Hoffman’s bleak first novel, the seed of hope, symbolized by the appreciation of the heavens, has taken root and its fruit can be seen in his later works.
In Hoffman’s eighth novel, The Land That Drank The Rain (1982), religious symbols, Biblical allusions and Christian themes of innocence, awareness, recognition and redemption characterize the entire novel, from its title and opening lines until its concluding “Christ-sacrifice” scene. Gary Davenport, writing in a recent issue of The Sewanee Review on the “tradition of Southern writing,” says of Hoffman’s Land:” … it is at once familiar and strange, real and unreal, temporal and timeless. In fact, although I hesitate to use a term so glibly applied nowadays to such a variety of situations, it is mythic.” (SR, Summer, ’83, 443) Initially the novel focuses on the attempt of its symbolically named protagonist, Claytor Carson, to rid himself of the sin, degradation and shame that had characterized his materialistic life in California. In an obviously symbolic journey to the East, Clay seeks salvation in an abandoned coal field in the mountains of Kentucky, where, in contact and conflict with a stream of minor characters, Clay undergoes the modern equivalent of the trials of Job.
For several days after his arrival Clay’s life becomes a process of purgation: he builds a small pyre to burn all connections with the past, his country club membership cards, his auto license and insurance papers, his credit and business cards, his wristwatch—any link to his shameful past. Determined to wrest a living from the land (Thoreau-like, as T. D. Young has pointed out), Clay “… worried that the land was so wounded nothing would grow.” But with the arrival of spring Clay’s hopes for a new start quickened: “He looked at the sun, and it appeared larger and a brighter yellow … He felt warmth settling around him.”
Thus far the images in Land have been suggestive and evocative, rather than direct. One recalls Fitzgerald’s description of “The Valley of Ashes” in Gatsby’s Long Island, or that of Eliot throughout much of The Wasteland. But Hoffman’s Claytor is still a long way from recovery and redemption, and it is here, early in the novel, that the reader meets one of the most unlikely means to grace and salvation found in any fictional world except possibly Flannery O’Connor’s. If ever an author has successfully created a character with whom the reader undergoes a constantly changing love-hate relationship, that character is Hoffman’s Vestil Skank, the illegitimate son of Renna Skank and any one of twenty-eight members of a high school football team. Vestil, in the hope of convincing Clay to finance his career and launch his professional debut as a song-writing, guitar-playing entertainer, watches Clay by night and day, hoping to discover some secret about Clay’s background that would give him the means of blackmail. When Clay, not wishing to have any relationship with anyone, repeatedly runs Vestil off and reports his illegal moonshine still to the local sheriff, Vestil seeks vengeance by assuming the role of Job’s tormentor. He sets fire to Clay’s cabin, uproots his garden, and uses a sledge hammer to knock down at night the newly mortared stones of a fence that Clay has set by day.
Vestil has long since been repudiated by his family, his mother who deserted him and his father who could never acknowledge him. Even his grandfather labels him “a child of sin … I believed I could sear evil from him with the hot power of Jehovah’s word, but he smelled out sin like a stallion sniffing mares.” And yet Vestil’s cries to escape the mountains before they overwhelm him become prayers that Clay ultimately responds to: “Oh God, I need to get out of these mountains before they bury me.” “Oh God, I got to get out. Jesus, ain’t anybody listening? I got to go.” It is this view of Ventil—“… so small and vulnerable on the river bank, folded, an embryo on its feet”—that prompts Clay to see Vestil in a new light, and to determine to help Vestil escape his fate. The view of Vestil that Claytor has at this moment is sudden, unexpected, almost visionary, like that of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner when he blesses the sea snakes unaware; or like the calm, peace and repose that come to Ivan Ilyich when, on his tormented death bed, he too, takes sudden pity on his child and wife, forgives them, and ceases the screaming that had gone on endlessly for three days and three nights.
If Vestil becomes the means to Clay’s eventual salvation, it is Hoffman himself who insists on the Biblical parallels one finds throughout the novel, but especially in the novel’s long and haunting climax. In Chapter 71, the longest and last, Clay, now dedicated to save Vestil in what could be a repudiation of Hawthorne’s unpardonable sin—the separation of the heart from the head—enters the town’s only hotel, the third floor of which serves as the local house of prostitution. He is ushered into room thirty-three, where he is greeted by “an oil painting of a naked white woman lying on red feathers.” From the moment that Clay enters Room 33 he is increasingly identified with the Christ figure, prepared to lay down his life to save his fellow man, even seemingly the least worthy. After Clay carries on a savage battle with the house’s protector, Coon, in attempting to give Vestil enough money to free him from bondage as a male prostitute, Coon finally corners Clay, and the white-faced Madame orders Coon to cut Clay with Coon’s omni-present knife:
‘Do it!’ she screamed.
‘Going to!’ Coon said.
A drop of powdery sweat fell from his chin onto Claytor’s face. Claytor wept, whimpered, and retched … Yet there was something else. The difference was that under all the riot of fear was a quietness, among all the terror a sureness … It found its way into his face, and he smiled—the bravest act of his life …
Coon made a double carving motion. Claytor heard cartilage being sawed and parting, heard it not from the outside through his ears but from inside along his bone, skin, throat and skull. A calmness and serenity flowed into him. He could have been dozing in the warmth of the summer sun.
Clay is then allowed to leave the hotel, to bear perpetually the scars of his Calvary. And Hoffman reminds the reader—as Clay makes his slow, painful journey to his home in the mountains—of Christ’s ascent:
Snow fell faster … Claytor swayed past mounds which were again clean … A tipple appeared virginal. He left drops of blood in the snow. Wind blew flakes that like wafers settled on cinders … His blood sprinkled snow, the stains sinking like red seeds. … Slowly he gathered his body to rise. He would climb to the house, clean himself, and meet them standing.
In this, the novel’s conclusion, Hoffman repeats the image that has become a motif throughout the novel: the reference to the wafer, a symbol of communion or union with God. Thus Clay’s spiritual odyssey ends, and like Billy Budd in the conclusion to Melville’s novel, Clay, too, ascends. Perhaps the clearest evidence of Hoffman’s intention in Land is found in the book’s title, the source of which is found in Hebrews 6: 1–9: “For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh off upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God.” The chapter ends recalling God’s promise to Abraham, “And so after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise.” Clay’s ascent, the time setting of the novel from late fall through winter to the promise of spring, and the allusions and parallels cited clearly combine to reveal Hoffman’s thematic intention: redemption and salvation are always possible, but they can come only after expiation, contrition, and sacrifice.
Hoffman’s ninth novel, Godfires (1985), returns to Hoffman’s present locale for its setting, and to the land and the people he knows so well. The novel unfolds in rural southside Virginia, in the region encompassing Farmville, Lynchburg, Richmond and points adjacent. Hoffman employs a highly unusual point of view for him, a radical departure from that employed in his other novels, one which allows him to present concurrent plots running throughout Godfires: one traces the murder of one of Tobaccoton’s most prominent citizens, Vincent Fallen Farr; the second explores a gothic inner world of mystery, spiritualism, kinky sex, hypocritical religion, guilt, expiation and redemption. Tobaccoton is described by its protagonist, Billy Payne, as “… tick infested, chigger infested, but most of all … religion infested. If religion were oak trees, we would’ve been living in a primeval forest instead of a thirsting land where the red soil of fields flowed into the sun’s glare like rivers of dust.”
Godfires is a double ‘who-dun’it’: who murdered Vincent Fallen Farr and why, and who is the Master who keeps the narrator in chains for three-fourths of the novel, teaching him about God, sin, and salvation. The novel opens with a scene that can readily be seen in any one of the seemingly endless horror and sci-fi flicks that are the “in” movies of the 80’s: Billy Payne, the narrator-protagonist, is lying “belly-down … my chain clanking as I shift to gaze out the crooked doorway of the cabin toward motionless briers, tangled kudzu, and drooping swamp weed blooming yellow. I await the precise tread of the master.” Hoffman then plays with the reader for over 200 pages, describing “the Master” as an erect military figure who wears a Smith & Wesson.38 police special and a sheath knife “used to skin out deer.”
There are many characters who play minor roles in Godfires: Florene Epes, Billy’s secretary; Harrison Adams, a former silent business partner of Farr, who, not long before the discovery of Vin’s body, had fought with Vin over a business venture gone sour; Doc Robinette, the small town family physician and county medical examiner; Billy’s father, an alcoholic so bent on reforming Billy that he pours vinegar into Billy’s carefully hidden bourbon; Sheriff Burton Pickney, one of Hoffman’s finest portraits, a description of whom also conveys Hoffman’s skill in using imagery:
The sheriff sat at his oak desk, a man whose flesh was so loose it seemed the only thing holding him together was his rumpled tan uniform. Unbutton his shirt or drop his pants and he would’ve flowed across the floor like lard melting in a skillet. He moved no more than he had to, and when he had to, it was with a slow, rolling gait, as if he perpetually paced the deck of a pitching ship and needed to compensate for rough weather.
And finally there is Rhea, Vin’s wife, now widow, a beautiful woman and a complex woman haunted by ancestral pride always present in the massive portrait of her mother that hangs in the living room of the Farr mansion; Rhea, who tells Billy that after the marriage with Vin had begun to sour “… I read a lot, even did a little private drinking, nothing like Vin’s, yet I’d sit in the quietness of the parlor sipping whiskey and looking at my mother’s portrait, trying to draw courage from her.” Rhea, cursed by the family pride she wore so proudly laments, “I considered leaving him. I went to a Richmond lawyer, yet couldn’t go through with divorce because my mother would never have. I am a Dillion woman. We won by lasting.”
The characters in turn force us to focus on Hoffman’s real concerns: the power of religion, even hypocritical religion; and the need for expiation to achieve redemption on the part of the individual. While Godfires is not a satirical novel, there is certainly much satire in it, almost always directed against “the religious nuts” of Howell county, principally the members of “The Ministerial Alliance,” led by the Rev. Buster Bovin (read Bovine). In one instance Hoffman calls religion “the Howell County Disease,” and in another refers to Howell County as “a community of less than 3,000 people supporting 23 churches, one for every 130.4 human beings … Two men could stop to light a cigarette or spit and a church would spring up.” Everything in Howell County is touched by, tainted by, religion: the bank “still loaned money as if dollars were serious and solemn as communion.” Even Rhea, with whom Billy has obviously been in love all of his life, does not escape the disease: “… she has gone too far. She burns with God fire … I do not like her eyes. They are fanatical beyond what I have ever seen there before. Lavender flames they are.” (333)
Ultimately, however, Godfires is a novel of forgiveness, and of reconciliation, and of love. In the final analysis, Hoffman seems to say, all we have is love: the love of a Father for His Son, of a wife for her husband, of a friend for a friend, of a son for his father, of a man for his ideal. When all else is shorn away, stripped from us, leaving us naked and afraid, the redemptive power of love appears, to clothe our nakedness, cover our shame, purge our guilt. What Billy Payne agonizingly and painfully discovers step-by-slow-step is that no man need be an island, that we all need one another, that love covers the proverbial multitude of sins. Although Billy and his father find solace in the bottle throughout the novel, ultimately they find courage, and comfort, and strength, and forgiveness and love in each other.
If the novels of William Hoffman by themselves have not earned for William Hoffman a permanent place in the twentieth century canon of American Literature, then surely the novels combined with his short stories should more than carve out for him a place of distinction. In the past twelve months two of Hoffman’s stories have been awarded the best-story-of-the-year-designation, first by the Virginia Quarterly Review for “Sweet Armageddon” (initially published in the Summer, 1988 issue) and in October of 1989 by The Sewanee Review (its distinguished “Andrew Lytle” Prize) for the short story “Dancer.”
The marvelous discovery that one makes in reading through By Land, By Sea, Hoffman’s most recent short story collection, is that there’s something for everyone, from stories dealing with age-old questions of faith and belief, doubt and certainty, relationships and commitments to stories that can best be called “good old-fashioned love stories.” In each story the reader discovers people as real as his neighbors—indeed, family members, and subject matter and themes as compelling as any that great literature has to offer.
Of the twelve stories that comprise the collection eight take place in settings familiar to Hoffman’s readers: rural southside Virginia, Danville, Richmond, and towns and counties adjacent to these; four are set on or near water, and to Hoffman water is the sea: the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. But regardless of the setting, the characters and the daily conflicts they confront are, as always, the essence of Hoffman’s fictional world, and the real world as well.
In “Fathers and Daughters” a wealthy lumberman worries that his daughter, well-educated, physically attractive, and “groomed” for William and Mary and high society beyond college will run off with one of the “rowdydowdies,” the epitome of the familiar “poor white trash” of southern fiction. In “Indian Gift” a dirt-poor but honest and hard-working farmer, trying to afford to send his son to the university at Charlottesville to give him a chance at a better life than he has had is a victim of the weather and a con man, Dip Cooley, who unloads a stolen tractor on the father and then disappears, leaving the farmer to face the authorities, and consequently losing his pride and dignity as well as the means to his livelihood. And in “Smoke” a young boy on the verge of manhood discovers the real meaning of courage when his sick and dying uncle makes the county bully back down during a life-and-death confrontation.
Hoffman also has a lot to say about growing old as well as growing up in these stories. In “Moon Lady” a soon-to-be forty year old “boy” discovers beauty and longing, mysticism and ritual in an old woman whose “lavender eyes were like wild, confederate violets that grew along the churchyard wall.” And in “Lover,” a plaintive hymn to youth and innocence, a sixty-four-year-old widower, who has forgotten what it is like to love and enjoy life, attempts to turn back time and re-enter an adolescent world. “I wake during the night thinking of her … her face stays in my mind, a shimmering seen through darkness.” And when Dave, the widower, arranges a meeting with Gail, the young girl, and invites her to his home, first for tennis and then for a house tour, he can no longer distinguish between the real and the unreal: “I must live it one last time—the youth and Helen, the hope, the promise of glory, the soaring. Gail struggles but finds I am indeed strong. She’ll no longer think of me as old.”
But as compelling and spell-binding as “Lover” is, it is not the strongest story of the several “love” stories in the collection; “Landfall”, “Altarpiece” and “Faces at the Window” all vie for this designation. To say much about “Landfall” is to reveal too much of this fine story’s emotional impact. Suffice it to say that ‘greater love hath no man than that of Chris for his dying wife, Belle.’ In “Altarpiece,” another story of a lonely widower, Peck, the protagonist, discovers life’s renewal with one of the least likely of society’s cast-offs, Jenny, a thrice-married and divorced dreamer. While initially Peck is drawn to her because they share “… great sadnesses: the fellowship of grief,” ultimately he reaches out to her, literally and figuratively, because of their mutual need and desire for communion and compassion.
The third of this trilogy, “Faces at the Window,” is perhaps the most positive of the three. Again Hoffman’s basic theme is one of renewal, this time between a still young and quite aristocratic Robenna and the recently widowed new minister in Tobaccoton, Dave Carson. While it is Dave’s preaching that initially attracts Robenna to him, it is his rugged masculinity that gradually brings her to accept the failure of her first marriage and to realize that life is not yet nearly over for her. After a brief courtship consisting largely of golf dates and afternoon teas, Robenna invites Dave to the annual “Fall Cotillion,” and in her home that night their love is consecrated.
There is, of course, a great deal more that could be said of the individual stories in this collection, of Hoffman’s lyrical imagery, of his sensitive ear for dialect, of his sympathy and compassion in presenting to his readers characters and shared moments that remain long after the story ends, but such a treatment will have to wait another time and another place.
What, then, is the place of William Hoffman in contemporary American Literature, and especially in Southern Literature, suggested by this brief sampling of his representative works? One can begin by claiming for him a range and a richness that few of his contemporaries possess: whether Hoffman is writing of the horrors of World War II or of the permanent scars inflicted by war both on its participants as well as on those who stand and wait, Hoffman’s words and images touch our raw nerves, and make us wince, blink, or cry. Probably one of his strongest assets as a writer is characterization—with many of his major character creations, Hoffman can make spiritually dead men come alive; additionally there are dozens if not scores of minor characters who remain long after one has put a particular novel aside. Third, there is Hoffman’s mastery of the comic element, that which separates man from the other animals to let us, as Burns said, ‘see ourselves as others see us,’ and at least to smile if not to laugh at the results. (When one thinks of humor in the writings of William Hoffman he recalls primarily three novels, and one particular scene, setting, or incident in each of the three; in A Death of Dreams it is contained in the chapel scene and the dining room scene of the Richmond hospital for the treatment of alcoholics; in A Walk to the River it is the motel scene where Jackson has taken Val and where their futile attempts to make love are interrupted repeatedly by the motel clerk, who, convinced they are not married, enters their room three times in the space of thirty minutes, each time sending the half-dressed Val scurrying to the bathroom; and in Yancey’s War perhaps Hoffman’s finest comic scene occurs early in the novel when Yancey, unfit for command but a Captain through brown-nose and bribery, manages to lose, during War Games, an entire company of 150 men for seventy-two hours.) Fourth, there is Hoffman’s style and language, the ability to convey with a phrase, a sentence, or a metaphor a wealth of meaning and expression, much as a great actor or dancer can do with a single gesture, shrug, or movement. And finally there are Hoffman’s themes, and his subjects that in the course of a novel become themes: honor, courage, love, self-sacrifice, war, the Darwinian theme of survival of the fittest, the Wolfe theme of You Can’t Go Home Again, the southern agrarian theme of the rape of the land, seen in many of Hoffman’s novels, especially A Place for My Head,The Dark Mountains, and The Land that Drank The Rain.
The final word in an essay such as this belongs to Hoffman himself. If William Hoffman were asked to add a word or two about his own spiritual odyssey over these past thirty years, from The Trumpet Unblown of 1955 to Godfires of 1985, he might say along with Billy Payne, the protagonist of Godfires: “I’ve come to admire man’s search for God. It’s noble and heroic, and to be contemptuous of religion is to be contemptuous of all that’s best in man’s history and achievement.” In many ways William Hoffman’s novels comprise such an odyssey, one man’s spiritual quest for God in an ever-increasingly God-less world.
SOURCE: “Fiction and the Furniture of Consciousness,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. C, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 323-30.
[In the following excerpt, Davenport praises Hoffman's skill as a novelist and offers a positive assessment of Furors Die.]
“Caelum, non animum, mutant, qui trans mare currunt”: those who rush across the sea change their climate, not their minds. Thus ran Horace’s advice to his travelling friend Bullatius. Given the right sort of mind, you will find what you seek anywhere, even at squalid Ulubrae—or, given the wrong sort, nowhere. Horace’s line has enjoyed a modicum of fame, no doubt because there have always been enough impenetrably ethnocentric travellers to make it seem true. But there are other conclusions that might be drawn here as well. For, if it is the mind that makes the place, then the mind—the right sort, once again—can presumably find (or create) significantly different meanings in different places.
There is hardly a finer instance of this “right” sort of mentality than Henry James, whose life’s work is, among other things, the record of a profound and sensitive mind’s self-conscious interaction with the places of the visible world. Such an achievement as The American Scene owes everything to James’s faith (or “superstition” as he calls it) that “objects and places, coherently grouped, disposed for human use and addressed to it, must have a sense of their own, a mystic meaning proper to themselves to give out,” and that it is “the prime business and the high honour of the painter of life always to make a sense—and to make it more in proportion as the immediate aspects are loose or confused.” Thus when the “restless analyst” of that book goes from New England to Philadelphia, he experiences not so much a Horatian change of climate as “the change of half the furniture of consciousness”—acknowledging in that luminous phrase that just as the mind creates places, so too do places create (or at least furnish) the mind.
In a country as large and geographically diverse as the United States, it should not be surprising to find novelists requiring the localities of their fiction to bear a large burden of meaning, as of course they have always done and continue to do. In many ways our fiction has never been more place-conscious, more regional, than it is now. The desire to resist standardization has been one of the main impulses behind literary regionalism (the southern Agrarian movement being the most notable example), and in a society that often seems nowadays to be in a state of mass-media-induced hypnosis, such resistance is doubtless commendable. The irony is that when today’s novels fail, as they often do, it is usually owing to other sorts of standardization of which their authors seem to be at times deliberate manipulators and at other times innocent pawns. …
The problem with many of today’s novelists is that their characters, incidents, and places strike the reader as ideas or conceptions rather than observations. The most magically impressionistic and expressionistic painting, to shift genres for a moment, seems always to come from artists who insist that they are merely trying to record what they see: Manet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse. The point is that they do see, instead of learning to duplicate another artist’s formula, and this is why they come to constitute the history of art while the skilled academics of their day quickly come to oblivion. The same often seems to be true of literature, as with García Márquez, who has claimed simply to be presenting life as he has experienced it. Knowing how to write or how to paint is not enough: what is required is the sort of passionate honesty that we quite accurately call vision.
It is some such quality that makes William Hoffman one of our best living writers, regional or otherwise. His tenth novel, Furors Die, might sound bland in summary: it follows two West Virginia boys, one rich, one poor, from their adolescence into their adult professional and social lives. They are constant rivals, each infecting the other’s life in a way that might perhaps remind the reader of Hotspur and Prince Hal. Clearly the author was not thinking of the dustjacket when he wrote this novel—no poetizing morticians or communes of incorrigible women here. Anyone acquainted with Hoffman’s work knows that he invariably beats the “inventors” at their own game, and in Furors Die he turns out transvestite hookers and lunatic fundamentalists with the best of them. Courtroom tables groan under the mountain of artificial limbs and other prosthetic devices entered as exhibits in a class-action suit against coal mine owners. And then there is the fall of the aristocratic Emerson Smythe, discovered by the city police “and two frantic mothers” as he lies “naked and drunk on an oriental rug, his bluish white body sparkling with sugary gumdrops, while around him laughed and skipped two six-year-old girls in pigtails and starched blue pinafores.”
Mostly what Hoffman does, of course, is see: “Rock slides from the snow-shrouded mountains blocked sections of Route 60, and misshapen icicles hung from boulders. Bleak leafless trees stood like the condemned in the shrieking, relentless wind.” Or this: “Fine new houses were being built on hills across the river. Trees fractured, tipped, and fell and raw ground spread in the forest like mange. People with money were attempting to elevate themselves above the smoke.” This landscape and the characters who people it are simultaneously real and fantastic, impossible and inevitable.
The visible world signifies in Furors Die to a degree that has few parallels in recent fiction, the split between the haves and the have-nots being perfectly embodied in the contrasting worlds of the two Virginias:
When they crossed the border into Virginia, Wylie felt the rules changed. He’d often had the sensation that the West Virginia land itself might uprear and hurl boulders or that savage, bearded men would leap from the ice-sheathed forest to rape and pillage.
At Virginia the mountains tamed, the roads straightened and became wider, the law took hold. There were manners as well as order among the people, a breeding even among the hayseeds, a rural gentility. The mountains of West Virginia, like a fortress, blocked amenity and refinement.
When a novelist and his characters can see such meaning in the places he creates, when he can thus present these places—or reveal them—as the furniture of consciousness, there is not much doubt about the authenticity and value of his work. This capability has always been a rare gift, and it seems reasonable to conclude from the present state of the art that it does not become any less rare as the number of aspirants to the title of novelist increases.
SOURCE: “Hoffman Energizes His Tales,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, September 11, 1994, p. F4.
[In the following brief review of the short stories in Follow Me Home, Carter deems the tales to be carefully constructed, humorous, and compelling, but denounces Hoffman for the fact that some of the stories and dialogue seem contrived.]
“We read to know we're not alone,” says a character in the recent film, Shadowlands. Literature comforts us with the knowledge that others share our doubts and fears, our disappointments and heartaches. And it extends this comfort by letting us enter the lives of others and experience the secret longings and broken dreams that stand us on common ground.
It is this function of literature that William Hoffman, a Virginian and former Hampden-Sydney College professor, so capably fulfills in his third collection of stories [Follow Me Home]. A master craftsman of empathy, Hoffman immerses us in the lives of characters we would shun on the street and makes us care about them.
Beau, the aptly named protagonist of “Points,” is an insufferable snob whose son “considers civility a nuisance.” A horseman whose bank balance has seen better days, Beau fears being cut from the “February Frolic,” fox hunt and, to his son's disgust, toadies up to those who control the invitation list. Nevertheless, when the chips are down, Beau acquits himself honorably, holding to a higher standard of civility and causing us to rally round him and eschew his son.
“Night Sport” is about a bitter, foul-mouthed Vietnam vet, a paraplegic, with whom—when he explodes into violence of a particularly chilling sort—we are ready to identify (and perhaps, in some secret part of our hearts, applaud).
Hoffman at times demonstrates a comic touch, as in “Abide With Me,” a story about a coal miner who sculpts an image of the Christ-like figure who appeared to him in a hospital vision and saved him from “the foul dog of death.” Predictably, his creation alienates the fundamentalist churchgoers in his community. But, perhaps just as inevitably, he winds up in trouble with feminists, the NAACP, the ACLU, the Jewish Defense League, and the county building inspector, as well.
“Coals” is the story of a clever black housemaid (“They like it when I dumb … Make them feel smarter. They feel smarter, they treat me better.”) who gains the upper hand over her crabbed and shrewish employer and, in the process, gives her a life.
Set in the hills of West Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, and in Virginia’s small towns and big cities, Hoffman's stories are carefully constructed—in fact, so carefully that now and then they seem a bit contrived. His prose flows like the rivers and streams he so often describes, but his dialogue (although he has a gift for mimicry) occasionally fails to ring true, most noticeably when a frightened fraternity pledge in “Night Sport” attempts to placate the veteran whose space he has invaded.
Despite such minor flaws, Hoffman's stories will strike a note of recognition in any reader. His 10 novels and two previous story collections have earned awards and praise from the critics but have totted up only modest sales figures. He deserves a wider audience. His work brims with life.
SOURCE: “Taking Measure: Violent Intruders in William Hoffman's Short Fiction,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. CIV, No. 3, Summer, 1996, pp. 396-412.
[In the following essay, Chappell draws attention to the recurring motif of an outsider entering into an insular community, or “pocket society,” in Hoffman's short fiction. As Chappell notes, this theme in Hoffman's stories is often dramatized by episodes of violence and menacing reversals that give depth, suspense, and resolution to his narratives.]
The term pocket society describes a definable aggregate of individual people that possesses recognizable dynamic qualities and important, though often changeable, relationships among its different members. It is smaller than our world or national societies or our body politic, and in the immediate sense it is more important to us because we engage so intimately and continually with it. Our family comprises a pocket society and our professional colleagues comprise another and so do the members of our church; the same is true of a bridge club or a sewing circle or an army barracks. But we rarely think about the natures of these small societies because they envelop us: we are caught up in their webs of multiple tensions and have no way to break clear and discover an objective point of view. We are too much a part of them; they are too much a part of us.
Fiction writers like to take a pocket society as a subject in either the foreground or background. Its workings exhibit fascinating relationships and its attitudes can demonstrate in striking fashion both human community and human solitude. For this reason writers have devised narrative strategies designed to bring to light the various strains and conflicts, passions and affections, hopes and fears that animate such groups. This kind of matter is more or less standard fare for the mainstream short-story writer.
Among these strategies of exposure one of the most useful is to introduce an outsider into the pocket society, a figure whose presence makes overt what was covert, lays bare truths hitherto unknown or unacknowledged, causes the members of the society to take stock of one another and themselves and of the situation they inhabit. The title of Mark Twain’s novella “The Mysterious Stranger” describes the nature of this kind of story—which is a very ancient one indeed. The garden of Eden was a pocket society which remained untested, and therefore unknown, until the Serpent showed up.
William Hoffman is a sturdy traditional short-story writer; his three books of stories, Virginia Reels (1978), By Land, by Sea (1988), and Follow Me Home (1994) are collections I recommend happily to readers of my acquaintance who inquire, in sometimes plaintive tones, “Does no one any longer write solid stories, the kind with plots and themes?” Hoffman does, and in open-handed fashion. His relish for the accessible story line, for thematic clarity, informative detail, strong characterization, and satisfying structure is unmistakable. Almost any page shows his enjoyment of these customary elements of fiction composition as well as his quiet proficiency in their application. He rarely writes what we could call an “experimental” story; he probably feels no need, being so expert in the art of straightforward narrative.
It is his traditionalism, I believe, that draws him to tell this most familiar of stories, the intrusion of an outsider upon a pocket society. His three volumes contain thirty-two stories altogether, and at least nine of them are stories of interlopers. Perhaps five others could be included in this count, but I fear to stretch my description by including such pieces as “Moon Lady,” in which the mysterious stranger who dances naked in the moonlight turns out to be the local postmistress, or “Moorings,” in which an uptown couple from Norfolk charms a poor harbor fisherman to his destruction by tempting him with visions of the easy life.
There is no need to include ambiguous examples because the ones that are clear-cut comprise almost a third of Hoffman’s collected stories. And of these nine stories of intruders no fewer than six have violence as a major element. This fact surprises me. William Hoffman is not a melodramatic writer: even his military novels do not depend upon bloodshed for their emotional force. But, of his short stories “The Spirit in Me,” “The Darkened Room,” “A Walk by the River,” “Tides,” “Night Sport,” and “Business Trip,” all employ violence or the close threat of violence. It is not garish shoot-em-up comic-book mayhem, and Hoffman is not splatteringly graphic, yet violence is indispensably present upon his pages and provides energy and suspense in edgy plenteousness.
He does not always require violence to give force to his stories about interlopers. In “Sweet Armageddon” the intruder upon the lives of the outcast minister Amos and his wife Martha is an old college buddy. His nickname is Whale, and his deed is benevolent in intention rather than abusive; he invites his friend to breakfast at his plush private club. For the straitly religious Amos the meal is more ordeal than treat; he endures it with as much dignity and affability as he can muster. When he returns home from his too-opulent meal he finds his elderly wife sitting lonely at the kitchen table, dealing solitaire with a deck of handsome cards, “perhaps from a sorority or bridge club, a deck from another life.” Amos observes once more that her actions and her setting are unfit for her background, that her unwavering love for him has brought her to a pinched and gloomy existence. “Her fingers were so fragile, made for the holding of roses and fine porcelain.”
This sentence shows Hoffman’s Chekhovian leanings—the intruder stories that lack violence often imply a debt to the Russian master. “A Southern Sojourn” dramatizes the power that loneliness and boredom have upon even a highly educated and well-intended person—and of the sour disruption that can result. In this story an engineer is sent from Minnesota to a small town in Virginia to oversee the installation of a boiler in a new knitting mill. The evenings are long and he tries hard to keep occupied, but so much free time is too onerous a burden. Finally he initiates an affair with a young black woman, a college dropout who is unwilling to let herself be used in this fashion. But she is dreadfully poor, and she becomes not the man’s whore but his paid mistress; the distinction is perhaps a fine one but important to both of them.
Neither is happy with the arrangement, and the woman gives Orson no peace. Once, when he hands her twenty dollars, Eunice says, “You must think I’m choice meat. You must think I’m tenderloin.” There can be no solution to the problem; each of them is already married and, besides, the attraction they feel toward each other is not the kind that good marriages are based upon. Their needs are so different that their hearts could never be consonant. From the beginning they have foreseen the end: Orson will be called away, Eunice will be abandoned. Orson tries hard to see the episode as something different from what it has been. The last time they meet he asks Eunice if she ever came to him for his own sake or always only for the money. She counters by asking the same question: “Did you want me because of me? Or do you think you’re kind and noble?”
“A Southern Sojourn,” like “Sweet Armageddon,” affords no new revelation: the characters only experience an intensification of the knowledge and feelings they have already been living with. When the parting comes for Orson and Eunice, there is no tearful farewell, not even a bittersweet goodbye, but only a laconic acknowledgment of the meaninglessness of their relationship. As he drives away forever, he spots her at one of her daily tasks, burning trash in a wire incinerator. “He stopped the car to wave to her. She didn’t see him, or pretended not to. … She emptied the can, stepped away from the flames, and went inside.”
“A Southern Sojourn” has no resolution beyond this moment of inarticulate frustration: it ends with a stalemate that suggests some of the most uncomfortable aspects of our national race problem. Orson, the Yankee intruder, has only intensified a bad situation that was already in place.
In other stories, however, the intruder can bring about some measure of resolution. In “Tides” a father and son, Wilford and Dave, are taking their sailboat Wayfarer from Albemarle Sound to the Chesapeake Bay. Dave has just been graduated from Duke University, has landed a management-trainee position with a bank, and will soon be engaged. All these developments—and especially the latter—relieve some of Wilford’s concerns about his son: “As a child the boy had been frail, allergic to foods, plants, insects. During college he’d become interested in theater and talked of becoming an actor-playwright. Friends Dave brought home had been definitely faggy. Wilford struggled to prevent certain pictures from forming in his mind, though prepared to stand by his son come what might. The filling satisfaction was to have him as he was now.”
This celebratory excursion is interrupted by an intruder, a nasty customer who abducts the pair at gunpoint and orders them to sail him to Baltimore. He means business and, though he knows nothing about boats or sailing, is alert and cunning. He sees through every stratagem that crosses Wilford’s mind and asserts his authority by pistol-whipping the father. When Dave attempts to attack him with a flare gun, his plan goes awry, and the criminal orders the young man off the boat and into the bay to drown. Wilford pleads, offering to exchange his own life for his son’s, but Dave forestalls his father. “To Wilford’s horror, Dave wailed and did a shameful thing. As he begged, he reached to the man’s foot and kissed it. He kept kissing the foot.”
In this moment all the anxieties about his son’s virility come to the fore. Wilford loves Dave, although he is not someone who can speak his emotions openly. “He’d always assumed the intensity of his feelings for the boy would beam out, radiate, make themselves known.” In fact part of Wilford’s purpose in this celebratory voyage has been to try to communicate his feelings. “Perhaps before they headed south again, he could summon words to make the appreciation of his son official.” His doubts about Dave’s masculinity have prevented his opening his heart, and now in this moment of violent crisis these same doubts almost prove the undoing of them both. He watches horrified as his son kisses the gunman’s foot, but he has misunderstood the situation: “Cursing, the man stepped back off balance. On his belly Dave thrust after him and shouted, ‘Grab him, Dad!’”
They overpower their abductor then, and in the struggle Dave loses a front tooth. As he starts to pitch it overboard his father takes it from him, intending to keep it always, the way parents preserve their children’s baby teeth. Wilford goes to correct the boat’s course (“a father’s habit”), but then halts himself and gives control to Dave: “He pulled back and dropped the hand to the throttle, which he pushed full forward. Wayfarer had plenty of water under her and a good man at the helm.”
Unlike “A Southern Sojourn” and “Sweet Armageddon,” “Tides” is a fully resolved story. Its violent climax makes resolution possible. Wilford’s unspoken and largely unconscious uncertainties about Dave come to the surface and are dissipated in one swift triumphant moment, and without this melodramatic incident his doubts might have remained to nag at him for years.
I must say, however, that I do not find the agent of this violence convincing. He seems more a figure from film or television than a real person: “The man wore a Panama hat, a tightly fitted khaki suit, and a maroon tie over a purple shirt. His full black mustache seemed much too large for his face. His skin was sweat shiny, particularly scar tissue curved across a cheek.” His dialogue also sounds stagy: “‘You ever been to Baltimore?’ he asked. ‘You’ll love that whore of a city.’”
Yet elsewhere Hoffman can draw villainous types with broad colorful strokes, characters that loom in the memory as full of menace as when first met on the page. Foremost among them must be Gormer, the snake-handling fundamentalist lay preacher of “The Spirit in Me.” In this story, told from Gormer’s point of view, the intruder is the unnamed heiress of a coal magnate: “She comes from Virginia west to ancestral acres, a jagged country of rock outcroppings and mountains gutted and scarred. She rests in deep shade at the mansion her great-grandfather built, three stories of dungeonlike stone topped by a copper roof which glints in noon sun. She comes with sin.”
In this story it is the point of view that identifies the intruder. The woman of the mansion visits here only in the summers. The land belongs to the company she owns, but Gormer’s church is established on it, “a board-and-batten building hammered together by my father, the roughness of new lumber first against his hands and then against my own.” Gormer helped his father erect the church and has proprietary feelings about the ground it stands upon. He tells the deputy sheriff who has been sent to evict him, “It is my church.” The deputy replies: “You may think it’s yours, but the law says the land and building still belong to the company.” Gormer’s answer is the one he has ready for all such occasions of conflict: “I am an instrument, and the Holy Spirit works through me.”
The author gives us to know that there is something besides the Holy Spirit working through, and within, Gormer. His father, before dying in a mine accident, had instructed his son in his own terrifying religious faith, and his mother has prayed—“Take my boy and use him!”—that her son will follow the ways of his father. His father’s doctrine and the manner of his death and the desperate fervor of his mother combine to shape Gormer’s character and provide the revelation of his vocation:
I am afraid of dreams and the stains on myself. No water washes me clean. That summer I go into the mountain, into the wet blackness of the mine which has the sulphuric smell of the pit. The first day as I work setting locust props to hold the roof, a blue light flashes before me and cracks like a thousand whips. All the hair is singed from my body. I am thrown on the haulway floor among gobbets of coal. The whips crack through the mine, and a voice says, “You are my instrument!”
Gormer is, of course, the most unreliable of narrators. The experience he recounts is real to him, including the singeing of his hair, and so he is unable to know how powerfully his upbringing informs all his perceptions. Other factors besides overbearing parents and cramped religious thoughts are also in force. He has absorbed, all unknowingly, his father’s envy of the mine owners: “‘They was common once!’ my father rages when they arrest him because of snakes. ‘The old man didn’t have a pisspot when he first come to these mountains. My grandfather fed him. He’d have starved the winter withouten my grandfather’s hog and hominy!’”
Gormer is so sexually repressed that in one quick episode he badly injures a tipsy woman who tries his virtue, and he is so abysmally lonely that he takes his highly dangerous church companions to be his “children”:
Now I have children of my own, not from a wife, but from the Spirit. I feed and treat them tenderly. They lie among clean curls of wood shavings which rustle slightly. During spring and summer I harvest young rabbits hanging in my snares.
My children know me, the heat of my hand, and they raise their heads when I lower meals to them. They know my fingers when I lift them from their box. I hold them as gently as wafers.
Gormer never speaks explicitly of the contrast between his own miserable way of life and that of the coal heiress, but Hoffman makes clear the savage envy that possesses him. The heiress is a widow whose husband died in war, and the other citizens of the settlement praise her civic-minded charity in full chorus. When one of them recalls that she helped the town to get water, Gormer responds, “It is not the water of life.”
The episode that brings the story to its climax is one of sexual jealousy. A fair number of Hoffman’s stories are concerned with voyeurism: sometimes the voyeurs are only passive watchers; sometimes they harbor inimical plans. “The Darkened Room,” “Lover,” “Moon Lady,” “Altarpiece,” and “Boy Up a Tree” all contain voyeurist scenes and some other stories refer to the act. In “The Spirit in Me” the situation is strongly and deliberately reminiscent of the biblical story of a paradise with its natural free sexuality and an embittered intruding serpent. In the final scene the widow has invited a male guest to dinner and for a swim in the lake afterward. Gormer watches for a long while, then goes to his house, returns with a package, and begins to watch once more:
I return with the box. Biting my breath, I kneel among laurel. She and her man swim in from the float. They rise from the dark water. She starts away, but he reaches after her and draws her. In moon I see him put his mouth on her. She holds to him as he unties the top of her bathing suit. He kisses her, and I whimper. Her hands are splayed over his temples. He lifts and carries her into the bathhouse. A click causes lights to die.
Because the story is told from Gormer’s point of view and because his range of vision is so excruciatingly narrow, “The Spirit in Me” offers little room for a reader to gain perspective upon the situation as a whole. The villagers with their litany of praise for the woman give some broad notion of what she is actually like, yet Gormer’s outlook is so dark and tainted and intense in expression that it is hard to stand back from it. But one remark of Gormer’s tells more about him than any amount of authorial exposition ever could: “He kisses her, and I whimper.”
That is a master sentence. It readies us for the sudden ending in which Gormer secures all the exits of the bathhouse while the amorous couple is inside. He also cuts off the electric power and then accomplishes his plan: “Kneeling on the steps, I lovingly feed my children through the doorway. They flow off my palms into darkness.”
Figures like Gormer are hardly uncommon in southern literature and have been limned with wonderful skill by Davis Grubb, Harry Crews, Madison Jones, and other writers. But I think no one has done the job so deadly—and with such deft economy—as William Hoffman. “The Spirit in Me” is a nightmare as deep and dark as they come, but it finishes in six thousand words.
In fact few of Hoffman’s stories are much longer than seven thousand words, and sometimes it appears a bit of a struggle for him to fit everything in. “A Walk by the River” feels cramped; too many incidents are crowded into a small space—an encounter with a young tough and his hippie girlfriend, a theft by the young man, a sexual episode between the girl and the protagonist, the return of the tough and a subsequent robbery, a shift in the allegiance of the girl.
But for the most part the lengths of these stories are satisfying. They are lean but strong, moving with quick grace from point to point; and, when they conclude, the figure they have shaped is a memorable and pleasing one. Much of their impact derives from brevity; I have mentioned Chekhov as a writer who surely has influenced Hoffman, and I think he must also have read his Kipling.
“Business Trip” is as laconic a story as “A Walk by the River” and, though it presents fewer incidents, contains as many surprises. These are skillfully handled and do not tumble over one another; they proceed in a smooth taut sequence, and the final revelation they produce is not only—as it first seems—of one character’s hidden nature but of a much larger situation.
Here the pocket society contains only two individuals, the unnamed narrator and his friend Harrison, a couple of grouse hunters inordinately proud of their sport and extremely protective of their partnership. They have built a purposefully spartan cabin in the mountains, and when they invite other hunters as their guests—something they very rarely do—they subject them to a ruthless scrutiny: “We were damn particular whom we invited each season. First, a guest had to be serious in his pursuit of grouse. Second, he had to see hardship as homage to the king of birds. Third, the guest needed to find joy in adversity. Last, in the high country truth prevailed.” This latter demand is pompous and hubristic, and it is fulfilled in a way the narrator could never have predicted or desired.
Circumstances alter cases, the old saw tells us, and the two men are forced to bend their rules to accommodate the presence of Clarence Toller. Clarence is a soft effeminate man and evidently no Nimrod, but he is the employer of Trixie, the narrator’s wife, and she prevails upon her husband to allow Clarence to accompany the two men as their unwanted third partner. The deciding factor is money. Trixie’s job is necessary for the couple to keep up the standard of living to which they are accustomed; she has been forced to work for their second income because of an unwise political choice on the part of her husband, and now she must keep in the good graces of her boss.
The trial is a sore one. Clarence is everything a macho man is not. Harrison suspects him of being “a fag”: “Manicured nails, silver cuff links, cologne, and way he sits with his knees together. Bet he has pajamas.” Clarence has indeed brought pajamas, “white with red horizontal stripes, and a bathrobe and slippers.” He is also frightened of the woods in the nighttime, anxious about the lack of indoor plumbing, careless with firearms, clumsy-footed, squeamish about killing game, and unable to eat the birds the others shoot. They are not surprised when on the second day Clarence chooses not to go into the woods but to stay in the cabin reading a book related to his antique business, Early American Silversmiths.
But on the third day he decides to try his sporting skills once more, and when the other two split up to pursue separate trails he accompanies the narrator. Almost as soon as they are alone Clarence brings up the subject of Trixie. She has been thinking, he says, of leaving her husband. The narrator counters that this is no one’s business but their own and then, while they are bickering, a grouse breaks cover. Clarence brings it down with an expert shot. He turns out to be an excellent marksman, and explains why: “Daddy had all us redneck boys out hunting as soon as we could carry guns. When you killed your first buck deer, they made you cut its throat, gut it, and drink a cup of hot blood. I puked and shamed Daddy.” He parries the narrator’s astonishment with an offhand but sinister comparison. “‘Shooting’s like screwing,’ he said and winked. ‘You don’t forget.’”
Expert though he is, Clarence does not enjoy hunting game. He calls the sport “ridiculous macho madness,” a “Daniel Boone charade.” He reveals that his true purpose in joining the hunters was to find an opportunity to broach the subject of Trixie. “She needs tender loving care, which you’re not providing,” he says. “So I’ve been hoping to help.” When the narrator balks at this suggestion Clarence attempts a more urgent sort of persuasion, raising his Browning in the other’s direction. The narrator is taken aback but not finally convinced: “You’re being stupid, I told myself. Afraid of a damn queer.” But now the possibilities become precipitately less moot. “You read about hunting accidents,” Clarence says. “Harrison would be an expert witness. He’d honestly testify what a booby I am in the woods. What jury would convict a sweetie like me?”
The climax of “Business Trip” is a gunshot. No one is injured, but the narrator is so frightened by it that he wets his pants and flings his Parker shotgun away. Clarence retrieves it: “‘Look what I found!’ he called. ‘Look what I discovered!’” He has discovered not only the expensive firearm but the narrator’s true character. Finding that he has become prey, the narrator disgraces himself. His bravado does not sustain him, and it is clear that he is going to lose everything to a hunter whose like he has never imagined until now. The episode has fulfilled in brutally ironic fashion the most stringent demand of this pocket society: “Last, in the high country truth prevailed.”
In “Business Trip” the society intruded upon by Clarence consists of only two men; but Hoffman has written at least two stories, “The Darkened Room” and “Night Sport,” in which the pocket society is made up of a single individual. Both of them are tense and disturbing stories and both contain thieves as characters. And in both cases it is the thief who comes to understand—too late—the meaning of the situation he has intruded upon.
“Night Sport” tells the story of a veteran named Chip who has lost his legs in the war in Vietnam. The chronicle of his embittered withdrawal from his family, his marriage, and the other comforts of social life is powerful, and all the more so because Chip’s motives are not revealed until the end of the story. He has moved out of his well-off parents’ rather grand house in order to live in squalor in a small cottage that he purposely allows to acquire a rundown, almost abandoned, appearance. Chip arms himself with an L. C. Smith double-barreled shotgun and a generous supply of whiskey, and he waits.
At last an intruder arrives; it is a student from St. John’s, “a private Episcopal academy housed in Georgian buildings and surrounded by grassy playing fields.” The school is expensive and traditional: “Life was patterned after English schools, with emphasis on classics and sports. Students wore blazers and ties to class. … Young southern gentility being formed.” The student, whose name is Tommy, has broken into Chip’s house in order to steal a television set; the act is part of his initiation into John’s Jesters, one of the clubs of the academy. “Initiation requires you have to do something daring,” Tommy explains.
His explanation and the long, deceptively friendly chat that follows it take place at gunpoint. Chip keeps his shotgun trained upon the young man as they discuss campus clubs, tea dances, track and field sports, and Tommy’s future plans. He intends, he says, to go to Washington and Lee; Chip had attended the University of Virginia after his years at St. John’s. The conversation is polite, almost casual, according to Tommy’s perception. He cannot know what Chip is thinking:
The little prick felt not only sorry for but also superior to him. The new breed, chosen, anointed, the slickies he saw tooling around the shopping center with blue-lidded piglets in rock-pounding Corvettes and TransAms. Righteous little farts. He stiffened as if about to be scorched again by the great exploding truth. Goddamn it, they ought to have to learn. They needed to know.
Chip, like the religious zealot Gormer in “The Spirit in Me,” believes that he is possessed of a truth, one great truth that gives him justification to make it known to the world in any way he pleases and at whatever cost. Chip’s fervor is not religious, but it is a Faith nonetheless and, like Gormer’s, twisted into a terrifying shape by his own personal history—by the things he has witnessed and experienced, by the loss of his legs.
The rundown cottage Chip inhabits has been a trap; he had expected that he would snare a thief with it, though he had not expected his prey to be so thoroughly to his desires. With his reminiscent palaver about prep school and college Chip has only been toying with Tommy in cat-and-mouse fashion. He starts to send him away with a knife that would prove the boy had actually effected entry into his house, then casually calls him back at the last moment:
As Tommy turned back politely, Chip thumbed the L. C. Smith’s safety forward. He pulled each trigger, firing the right barrel for Tommy’s left calf, the left barrel for the right—the shells No. 8 dove load. Tommy’s legs were slammed back beneath him. The front length of his body pounded the floor. … Dazed and astonished, he lifted his head, and the terrible knowledge, the deepest knowledge of all, flowed into those honey brown eyes. He struggled to right himself, howled, and now sobbing on his side, hinged forward as if exercising to touch his toes.
After shooting Tommy, Chip tosses his victim a towel, then telephones the sheriff’s office to send an ambulance, saying that his house has been broken into by a knife-wielding burglar. After telephoning he raises the window blinds, turns on the house lights and gathers in the mail and newspapers he has allowed to accumulate on his front porch. He obliterates any impression that his house could have been intended as a baited trap. Like Clarence in “Business Trip” Chip gets away with his deception scot-free.
Many stories that deal with one-person societies are contes cruels. Edgar Allen Poe is the master of this subgenre, and “Night Sport” has more than an incidental resemblance to “The Cask of Amontillado,” while “The Spirit in Me” is similar to “The Tell-Tale Heart.” “Your Hand, Your Hand,” Hoffman’s story of alcoholic nightmare, is a bit reminiscent of “The Pit and the Pendulum.” These are all stories in which a single individual is subjected to an ordeal he can neither comprehend nor escape. Their unfolding is hypnotic, their power horrific; they reveal the utter helplessness of the isolated person.
“The Darkened Room,” one of Hoffman’s strongest tales, is a neat variation upon the familiar theme. It begins, however, in a most familiar way: a young thief named Richard is spying on the house of a rich but dissolute married couple. Like the murderous preacher Gormer, his malevolent motives stem from his family history. His mother is a nurse, bitter and resentful of the husband who deserted her. “He cheated me out of my life,” she tells her son. “He lied, robbed, and gave me a filthy disease from his whoring. … I wish I’d killed him. I wish I could put a knife in him right now. And you’re like him!”
After meticulous preparation, and making sure that the couple has left to attend a party, Richard breaks into the house he has surveilled. Hoffman builds considerable suspense as he describes the thief’s progress from room to room, his careful caution and his skillful stealthiness. But, like Tommy in “Night Sport,” Richard has entered a situation he does not understand. When he enters the last room, the one he has observed to remain dark always, the light snaps on, and he finds himself in the presence of “a fat old woman who sat in a high-backed cane wheelchair.” She is a figure so grotesque that Richard tastes vomit and almost fouls himself:
She bulged through the chair, and it dented her flesh. She wore a black, powder-dusted dress which had buttons missing, cotton stockings, and flowered bedroom slippers that were split along the seams. Her legs were as thick at the ankles as at the knees. Creases of her face were so deep they held shadows. On her neck was a growth which lapped over her white collar to her shoulder. Kinks of white hair grew from a flaking pinkish scalp. Her green eyes had chips of darkness in them. Her lashes and brows were gone.
This strange woman is the mother of the houseowner. She is the house’s shameful secret, hidden away from all eyes but the family’s. Richard’s presence does not alarm her; she has seen too much hardship and violence in her life to be frightened of the young man, even when he threatens her. She tells Richard that he is unable to harm her. “You won’t because you’re afraid to touch me.”
It is the daughter-in-law who keeps her prisoner, the old woman says. “She’s afraid people will find out we’re coal camp. When her friends come, she pulls the blinds and locks me in the room. She won’t let me eat at the table evenings. Why she’d turn to rain water and sink right into the ground if any of her new friends saw me.”
She sides with Richard, but her motive is not revenge upon her son and daughter-in-law. Her allegiance to the thief seems instinctive, a bonding, a recognition of their kinship as shameful, miserable outcasts. The difference is that she is old and has seen through the sham of false expectation while Richard still hopes to elude his destiny. When the couple returns home from the party, quarreling loudly and drunkenly, she helps Richard escape capture in the house. Pride is the reason she gives for her action: “I know I’m a burden. … What a lot of people want is for me to drop into the grave, but it’s my pride. I won’t. Us Ackers has always been gifted with long life. I’ll sit here in the dark and not show myself, but I won’t go to the grave till a team of angels’ mules drags me. It’s my pride.”
Under the hoard of parvenu wealth sits this grotesque and abandoned old woman, the dirty secret at the heart of a false economy, hidden away out of shame and because of her origins that have long been denied but cannot be forgotten. She is there always to remind her son and daughter-in-law of what and who they really are; she is the truth they cannot forget but cannot admit, and it is the hypocrisy in regard to her existence that is ruining the lives of the married couple. All their money cannot rescue them.
This is the truth the old woman knows and has tried to demonstrate to the housebreaker. But Richard is too young; his situation is so desperate that he must harbor some hope, however forlorn and blind. He evades arrest and makes his way home by a circuitous route and goes to bed. He is safe from the police and from that unhappy house with its terrible secret. But he is not safe from the torture of hope, and sleep does not come easy: “He finally slept but woke during the night. It was still snowing. The horn of a coal tug sounded along the muffled river valley. His right hand was stretched up into darkness toward the hill as if there were something for him to touch.”
Here, as in other stories by Hoffman, the traditional trope of microcosm-macrocosm is put to good use. The situation that Richard discovers when he breaks into the pocket society of a wealthy house mirrors in small a larger situation in our national society. The microcosm-macrocosm metaphor is well suited to the tradition-oriented talents of Hoffman, and he employs it with admirable results in such stories as “Indian Gift,” “Smoke,” “A Southern Sojourn,” “Sea Treader,” and still others.
But it is perhaps most effective in those stories in which an act of violence exposes, as suddenly and nakedly as switching on a klieg light, the underlying scaffolding of the framework in which it takes place. Inexpressive in itself, the violence brings to sharp focus truths that go generally unremarked in the course of daily events. Whether sordid, as in “The Darkened Room,” or pitiable, as in “Night Sport,” or sanguine, as in “Tides,” these truths are always present; but they require the right kind of incident to lend them the force of revelation. It is difficult to give violence in fiction any stronger value than the merely sensational, but William Hoffman is more than equal to the task. It is one, among many others, that he has mastered.
SOURCE: “Hoffman's Novel ‘Tight, Taut, Compelling …’,” in Farmville Herald, April 1, 1998, p. 2B.
[In the following review, Frank enthusiastically praises the literary merits and compelling, thrilling story in Tidewater Blood.]
Move over John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell and Sue Grafton—there's a new kid on the mystery writer's block! Charlotte County novelist William Hoffman's Tidewater Blood is tight, taut, compelling and convincing.
Two months ago my wife and I were on our way to visit my brother in New Port Richey, Florida via Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of my wife's sister we had with us a twelve hour tape of Dean Koontz' Intensity. It was so gripping that we thought about driving around Savannah after our arrival just so we could-listen to the novel's conclusion. Yesterday I had to sit with our other Savanna, our granddaughter, who was recovering from a strep throat. I took along with me my copy of Tidewater Blood, assuming I could read a chapter or two while she dozed, worked on her homework, or watched television. I never put the book down until I finished it several hours later!
As the poet and novelist Fred Chappell wrote in a pre-publication review, Tidewater Blood is “an irresistible story of revenge, flight, recognition and ingenious detective work. Here is a novel as taut as a drumhead, as sinewy as braided cable, as powerful as the momentum of a falling boulder. I was helpless in its grip.” In a brief prologue we learn that a powerful Tidewater, Virginia aristocratic family, while gathered to celebrate its 250 year founding, is blown to pieces standing on the portico of the family mansion. The attention of the investigating authorities is immediately and solely focused on the black sheep of the family, Charles MacKay LeBlanc. Charlie, a Viet Nam vet, has brought shame and humiliation to the proud LeBlanc family because he had been court martialed, sent to Leavenworth, and given a dishonorable discharge. He in turn has repudiated the LeBlanc name, and has taken the name Jim Moultrie, a name he tells us that he took from a tombstone in Tampa, Florida.
But there are too many people in Tidewater and King County who remember Charlie, what he looks like and what he had done to earn the animosity of his own family, so it is Charlie LeBlanc that the reader follows throughout the novel.
When Charlie is apprehended by the authorities he is staying in a shack at Lizard Inlet on the Chesapeake Bay, existing on vegetables grown in his garden and oysters and fish from the salty marshes. Taken in handcuffs to the county seat, Jessup’s Wharf, Charlie is viciously maltreated by the sherrif’s deputies who assume his guilt. Because there is no solid evidence against Charlie he is released with the provision that he sign in at the local jail each morning by 8:00, and he is forbidden to leave the county. But Charlie knows that unless he proves his innocence he will indeed be found guilty, and given the multiple murders he will in all probability get the chair for his crime.
Through a process worthy of Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin, Charlie soon reaches the conclusion that the solution to the crime lays not at the LeBlanc mansion itself in King County, but in the coalfields of West Virginia, the source of the LeBlanc wealth. Branded as a known felon and fugitive, Charlie heads for the hills and mountains of West Virginia, hounded by state police from two states, and narrowly escaping arrest on several occasions. Along the way he is aided by a wonderful cast of characters, the majority of them also outcasts and drop-outs from society. Befriended by the friendless, Charlie slowly begins to unlock terrible and searing secrets from the LeBlanc past: there is Arthur Moss, a retired slaesman and amateur historian; Blackie, a young, tough widow trying to make a living running a bar and truckstop; Cornstalk Skagg, a friend of man who literally lives in a cave; an elderly mountain woman known as Aunt Jessie; an old army buddy from his earlier Nam days, Zeke Webb; and a community college physics teacher, Dr. Alexander B. Bingham.
How Hoffman puts all of these ingredients together, stirs them up, and solves the riddles, secrets and motives behind the multiple murders is, of course, the essence of Tidewater Blood. But in writing this novel William Hoffman is not merely writing a mystery novel, or an interesting and entertaining classic “whodunit.” Hoffman is still very much the master of language, point of view, setting, characterization and scene. With a single sentence Hoffman can evoke the isolation and loneliness of his fugitive protagonist: “People flowed around me as if I were a rock in a stream, especially the alarmed ladies.” Or consider Charlie's state of mind during one of his visits to Bellerive, the LeBlanc family estate: “Drinking from the bottle I allowed no childhood memories to take full shape. When they attempted to emerge. I dismembered them.” And William Hoffman's power of description is still as good as it gets: here is his picture of Charlie’s first visit to Aunt Jessie: “She wore a poke bonnet of a kind I didn’t know could be bought in this day and time, and her plain brown dress appeared homespun and also from another age. Her body curved to her work. She was ancient, her face weathered, the wrinkles in so deep they shadowed themselves. Her skin appeared tough as saddle leather. Her hands were gnarled and clawlike, yet she gripped pods with a deliberate tenderness as she pulled them from the vines.”
But to this reader the novel's major achievement is the deftness with which Hoffman transforms the protagonist. Charlie LeBlanc, from his initial appearance as a dirty, smelly hermit to a human being with daring, courage, ingenuity and integrity, an evolution that grows on the reader along with the novel.
Equally worthy of recognition, however, is William Hoffman's recreation of the perfect revenge story. For Tidewater Blood is also a compelling story of betrayal, resolution and revenge, a revenge so complete and devastating that had circumstances (or the sometimes friendly forces of fate) not intervened, the entire LeBlanc family—roots and offspring—would have been destroyed. To say more would be to say too much, considering that the novel's primary appeal is that of suspense and mystery. Suffice it to say at this point that as Charlie's search for the one or ones responsible for the multiple murders deepens, and he discovers secrets too horrific for the human soul to bear unscarred, he also discovers himself, in the classic Greek sense of “to know thyself.” Like Jack Burden of Warren’s All The King's Men, by the end of the novel Charlie LeBlanc, too, is able to re-enter the world he had abandoned, and accept the awful responsibility of time. As William Faulkner said, the past is never dead—it's not even past yet.
Tidewater Blood is much more then than a classic literary whodunit in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe or Greek tragedy, more even than a first rate, page turning thriller that other reviewers have called it. It is also, in the words of Marshall Snow of “Mostly Murder, Mystery and Mayhem Bookstore,” of South Grafton, Massachusetts (who incidentally gave it a rating of 10), “one heck of a book—don't miss it!!!”
SOURCE: “Hoffman Turns to Suspense,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, April 12, 1998, p. F4.
[In the following review, Carter lauds Hoffman's characterization and sense of place in Tidewater Blood,but denounces the author for couching the deeper story about the conflict between Virginians and West Virginians within the trappings of a murder mystery.]
Although Cold Mountain and Paradise have managed recently to elbow their way onto the bestseller lists, the top slots are still populated mainly by novels about secret political/economic/terrorist cabals threatening to destroy entire populations unless their demands are met.
In such novels, a protagonist armed only with a Swiss Army knife stumbles unwittingly into the plot, survives massive explosions and enough high-tech firepower to reduce the immediate environment to rubble, restores peace and security to the world, then parts with the frightened female companion he has somehow acquired and returns to his job as a typesetter.
Writers such as Virginia novelist William Hoffman, who explore the complexities of moral conflict in a fallen world, win lots of prizes and get good reviews but usually have to teach for a living. (Hoffman is a long-time professor at Hampden-Sydney College.) Small wonder, then, that they are tempted sometimes to go for the green.
Tidewater Blood, Hoffman's 11th novel, is billed as “a novel of suspense,” a first for this author and for his publisher, the prestigious Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. It would be nice to report here that Hoffman proves he is as adept at concocting a thriller as he is at mining the mysteries of the human heart, but, alas, such is not the case.
The novel opens explosively and ends with a string of revelations that will take even the most alert reader by surprise, but what happens in between doesn't hold up. There are no close brushes with death, no surprise betrayals, no body count. The protagonist simply moves from place to place, encountering a string of eccentric characters, some of whom offer clues to the mystery while others merely provide local color.
This is not to say that the book is not worth reading. Hoffman may not be another John le Carré, but he is a master at evoking the sights, smells, and sounds of the landscape. His knowledge of coal mining is impressive and the detail he imparts, fascinating. And his characters—from a legless dynamite expert to a one-eyed barmaid and an ancient mountain woman—are alive and worth getting to know.
Hoffman's narrator and protagonist, Charlie LeBlanc, is the ne'er-do-well younger son of a prosperous Tidewater family whose fortune originated in the coal mines of West Virginia. When the family's plantation is blown to bits on the 250th anniversary of the arrival in the New World of its founder Jean Maupin LeBlanc, Charlie, an alumnus of Vietnam and Leavenworth, is the chief suspect.
Charged with the murder of his elder brother, his sister-in-law, and their 5-year-old son, Charlie manages to slip his leash and launches his own investigation into the mystery, a mystery whose solution lies in the coal mines abandoned by his father many years earlier.
Hoffman's subtext is the longstanding family feud between West Virginians and their cousins to the east. With one foot in both camps—he was born in West Virginia—Hoffman is uniquely positioned to explore the conflicting values and cultural assumptions of each. This is the story Hoffman really wants to tell and a story that might better have been told without the trappings of the suspense genre.
SOURCE: “Surprise Ending,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, April 29, 1998, p. D1, D3.
[In the following review, McKelway extols the virtues of Tidewater Blood, noting that the book marks a departure for Hoffman due to its suspense thriller characteristics, whereas his other works typically feature philosophical examinations and deeper symbolic levels at their core.]
He doesn't remember exactly when the idea came to him, but it dawned on Virginia writer William Hoffman that murdering someone with a time-delayed explosion would make for a novel crime.
Fortunately, the idea has spawned a possible best seller rather than a police record.
In his new book. Tidewater Blood, Hoffman has allowed his fertile imagination to do away with a prosperous, unsuspecting chunk of Virginia aristocracy on the 250th anniversary of the family's arrival in the colony.
“No,” he said the other day from his Charlotte County farm, Wynyard, “I don’t have any enemies that I’m getting back at.”
Blowing up folks has not been Hoffman's meal ticket as a writer over his long career, one that runs back to the 1950s and has produced more than 50 short stories and 10 other full-length works.
These writings have thematically plumbed Southside and Tidewater Virginia history, religion and segregation, as well as the opening of the West Virginia coalfields.
Tidewater Blood, on the other hand, “just sort of turned into a suspense story,” Hoffman said almost apologetically.
“I just started out to write another book.”
The 290-page page turner is generating keen interest.
Hoffman's style and his deft, spare touch have been compared to those of Pulitzer Prize winner Peter Taylor; early praise for Tidewater Blood has been highflying even by dust-jacket standards.
“I was helpless in its grip,” noted reviewer Fred Chappell. The University of Virginia's George Garrett credited the story with “an elegant clarity of style” whose characters are “credible, interesting and fully dimensional.”
Paperback rights have been sold and the book is a selection of the Mystery Guild, Hoffman said.
At 72 years old and the recipient of some of the country's highest writing awards—the John Dos Passos Prize and the Goodheart Prize among them—Hoffman welcomed such reactions so late in his career.
“I was about ready to hang it up. I thought I was about at the end of the road,” Hoffman said. Now he's talking sequel possibilities with his publisher, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, and making his first-ever publicity tour.
Hoffman will be reading at the Library of Virginia today at noon and will be signing books tonight at Book People and at Barnes & Noble on Huguenot Road.
Southside Virginia bookstores, especially Hoffman's hometown favorite at Charlotte Court House, are doing a land-office business with the book. Hoffman has his hand close enough to the pulse of things to relate that his novel is getting good display at bookstores as far away as Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“What they're saying is this could be a breakout book for me, so there is a lot of talk going on about what comes next,” said Hoffman, whose 50-acre farm is a study in self-sufficiency and adventurousness.
At one point, when the writing wasn't going so well, Hoffman said, he considered getting into manufacturing horseshoes. Years ago, he proved his worth to area longtimers, not by his superb stories, but by building his own fences and installing a garden that became a local horn of plenty.
“Everything we ate came off the place,” he said.
Of course, there is more to Tidewater Blood than the mysterious destruction of a family of Virginia bluebloods on their Tidewater mansion's portico.
Hoffman's novel is the story, mostly, of a falsely accused, disinherited relative—one critic has already labeled Tommy Lee Jones as perfect for the part—and his frantic search for the true killer.
What Charles LeBlanc finds out about himself and his family makes for the novel's foundation and helps provide its twists and turns.
Almost every old-line Virginia family has a loose cannon like Charles roaming about the countryside, although Charles seems to rank at the bottom of the genre's gene pool. He's a saturnine ex-con whose threadbare existence in the swamplands comes to a forced end with the murders.
Led almost magically to West Virginia where a forebear helped secure the family wealth in the coal business at the turn of the century, LeBlanc manages to unearth a graveyard full of family skeletons who hold the key to his future and the crime.
Hoffman grew up in West Virginia and summered at Virginia day camps, eventually settling in Charlotte County and teaching at Hampden-Sydney College.
“He never followed the standard route to success,” said retired Longwood College professor Bill Frank, who's writing a biography of Hoffman. “I think he was very confident that he could remain in an area that he liked very, very much and sooner or later he would be recognized for the quality of what he was doing.”
Hoffman is regarded by fellow writers as a master of the trade and as someone who never indulged in the sex-and-gore mold for marketing success.
That’s true as well of Tidewater Blood, despite the plot line. There's a curvaceous potential love interest, for instance, but she lost an eye in a knife fight and is too wary of LeBlanc to fully trust him.
When the twosome rides off into the sunset (in a manner of speaking). Hoffman doesn't let her drop her guard.
“She's still got her shotgun,” he chuckled.
His descriptions show a sure feel for the Virginia landscape, especially the Northern Neck and York River areas.
He's just as sure in his descriptions of the West Virginia coalfields and the nearly deserted mining camp spawned by the LeBlanc coal empire.
That’s no accident, said Hoffman, whose family still holds ownership of heavily mined West Virginia coal reserves. A great grandfather, a Scottish immigrant, developed one of the state’s major coal deposits.
“I still remember staying with him from time to time,” Hoffman said of his ancestor. “Every night he had a Scotch and recited a poem by Robbie Burns.”
Hoffman's characters are true reflections of their environments: from an aloof, take-no-chances trust lawyer in downtown Richmond to the all-knowing one-eyed West Virginia barmaid to a mountaintop cave-dweller who robs the power company of copper-filled electrical lines.
From clumsy deputies to a secretive mountain sylph to a dismembered explosives expert, Hoffman gathers up a strange, tight-lipped cast that is more knowing of LeBlanc's past than even he is. What the tale lacks in depth, it makes up for in surprise and plot twists.
“This is a different course for me,” Hoffman said. “The other books had more of a symbolic, philosophical sort of underpinning.
“There is some of that here but it's mostly a book of suspense.”
SOURCE: “His Novel's Success is ‘Thrilling’ News,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, April 30, 1998, p. B1.
[In the following review, Clark discusses the release of Tidewater Blood, noting Hoffman's easy-going affability and the author's venture into the suspense thriller market with the novel.]
William “Bill” Hoffman came to town yesterday to promote his new novel, Tidewater Blood.
The book, a modern suspense thriller involving an aristocratic Virginia family whose roots go way back, is off to a fine start artistically and commercially.
It has been proclaimed a page-turner by some literary critics, and it is showing signs of becoming a best seller. If the book earns him a chunk of change, that will be just fine with Hoffman, an accomplished fiction writer who hadn't been known as a mystery writer.
“Some people have accused me of betraying my craft by writing a thriller,” he told a lunch-hour audience at The Library of Virginia. “My response is that a 72-year-old man has a right to make a little money.”
Hoffman is a serious writer and a funny guy.
His healthy sense of humor was in grand form at the state library, where his appearance was sponsored by The Virginia Center for the Book.
The audience included a number of men who have known Bill Hoffman a long time. Some of them knew him as a fellow student at Hampden-Sydney College in the 1940s. Others studied under him at Hampden-Sydney, where Hoffman taught literature and creative writing for three decades until retiring in 1983.
Looking at the familiar faces in the crowd, Hoffman said he was delighted to see some very close friends. “If I ever need a little cash, I could collect from them by promising not to write about them,” he said.
Hoffman was accompanied to town by his wife, Sue, who remembers seeing a picture of him in a magazine when his first book was published years ago. “I liked what I saw,” she said, smiling.
The Hoffmans have lived for more than 30 years on a farm near Charlotte Court House in Charlotte County.
One day, three of his friends drove into the town to pay him a visit. They approached some fellows who always can be found passing time beneath a big sycamore.
“Do you know where William Hoffman, the writer, lives?” one of Hoffman's friends asked the locals.
They shook their heads, “No.”
“Well, do you know where Sue Hoffman lives?”
“Oh, Sue! Sure. You just go down the road there and turn right at the Methodist church.”
Bill Hoffman grew up in Charleston, West Virginia.
“I'm not from Virginia, but I got here as soon as I could,” he likes to say.
His family often traveled by car to Virginia Beach on vacations when he was a boy in the 1930s. On the way, they always stopped in Richmond to spend the night at The Jefferson Hotel, which had live alligators in a pool in the lobby in those days.
“I tried to stare them down and make them blink,” Hoffman said. “But you can't stare an alligator down.”
The best advice for a writer, Hoffman said, is what high school English teachers have been telling their students for years: “Write about something you know.”
His stories are set in places he is familiar with. His characters are composites of real people he has known.
“I've been threatened by some people who saw themselves in one of my books,” he said. “One fellow threatened to hit me. I said go ahead, I need the publicity.”
Bill Hoffman is beginning to get a lot of publicity.
Heretofore, writing has brought him some literary awards, and it has earned him a reputation in literary circles as one of the South's best fiction writers.
Fame and fortune, however, were for big-name writers whose paperbacks are sold at airport newsstands.
Now, at 72, Hoffman is poised to be “discovered,” thanks to Tidewater Blood, his thriller.
“I didn't start out to write a thriller,” he said.
“I didn't think of it as a thriller when it was finished. In fact, I was offended the first time somebody called it a thriller. But if they'll buy it, they can call it a thriller.”
SOURCE: “Hoffman Opens His Door: Author Discusses Writing, New Short Story Collection,” in Farmville Herald, June 4, 1999, pp. 1, 10.
[In the following interview, Hoffman discusses his approach to writing, his short story collection Doors,and the thematic concerns of his fiction.]
Editor’s Note: The following interview took place at the home of Bill and Susan Hoffman at their home, Wynyard, in Charlotte Court House, on Monday, May 24. The occasion was the publication of Mr. Hoffman’s fifteenth book and fourth short story collection, Doors. … The interview was conducted on behalf of the Farmville Herald by Bill Frank, Professor Emeritus of English, Longwood College.
[William L. Frank:] Most of our readers are familiar with your work, but for readers new to the area would you tell us when you began writing, and why did you decide that writing fiction was to be your principal life’s work?
[William Hoffman:] I started writing fiction when I was at Washington and Lee University and took a writing class there. I really entered my intense and sustained period of writing in 1952, when I went to teach at Hampden-Sydney College. I wrote my first four or five novels while I lived in Farmville. I chose fiction because it chose me, I guess. I love to read fiction because I believe fiction is a lot more than entertaining. I think the greatest fiction conveys truths that can be gotten in no other way. It speaks to the heart and the brain simultaneously.
Aside from stories written for classes at W&L or the University of Iowa Writing Workshop, your earlier published work consisted of novels. Many writers I’ve known—Doris Betts, George Garrett, Lee Smith, Allen Wier all spring to mind—started out as short story writers and then “graduated” to novels. You seem to have reversed the process. What were the circumstances that led to the publication of your first published novel, The Trumpet Unblown?
You’re absolutely correct about my writing. I wrote and published many novels before selling my first short story, but I got plenty of rejection slips along the way. The first short story I sold was to the Gentlemen’s Quarterly, and it was pretty slight. The first novel I completed was postwar novel whose characters were chiefly casualties of World War II wounded in spirit or mind as much as in body. I was in my first year at H-S and while that novel, Days In The Yellow Leaf, was making the rounds at New York publishing houses I started work on my second novel, The Trumpet Unblown.
I was living in Farmville up on High Street and teaching at H-S. My good friend and the President of H-S, Dr. Gannon, told me he couldn’t hire me to teach again unless I got a graduate degree. I filled out an application for the graduate school at UVA and almost at the same time completed Trumpet and sent it to my agent in New York.
That Christmas I went home to visit my grandmother in Charleston and came back early to hunt birds. I went out on New Year’s Day by myself to hunt. It was one of the best days I’d ever had. I had two good dogs, shot well, and went home to find a telegram under the door; Doubleday, the first publisher Trumpet had been sent to, wanted to buy it. With the success of The Trumpet Unblown I was able to sell the first novel I wrote, Days In The Yellow Leaf.
You’ve told me in the past that you’re a very disciplined writer. How do you spend a typical writer’s work day?
When I taught full-time at H-S I had to do my writing before my 8:30 class in the morning, so I started writing at 5:00 a.m. For the most part I wrote six days a week starting around five in the morning from 1952 to 1998. I felt a responsibility to write every day, and when I didn’t or couldn’t I felt uneasy; I felt I had not been honest …
I feel like I’m two people—the person you see on the street and talk to, and the writer in a kind of trance. After an hour or two of writing I have to take a break. Writing physically wears me out. After a break, I return to writing, novels in the morning and short stories in the afternoon. When I’m at my desk I’m in another world.
The term inspiration is probably an over-worked word with poets, short story writers and novelists, but where do your ideas come from?
Writers write—writing is a job. You can’t wait for inspiration. I use what’s at hand … I believe there’s at least one story in every person. Facing the empty page is a fearful moment—a scary thing, but that’s how one has to begin. I don’t always know a novel’s outline in advance. It grows on me, like planting a seed. Thus, I grow the story, consciously or unconsciously—sometimes when I’m asleep.
Doors, just published by the University of Missouri Press, is your fifteenth book, fourth collection of short stories. Do your novels generally begin as a short story and you expand them, or are your novels drawn up in your mind as a novel before you begin to write?
I’ve never consciously expanded a short story into a novel. I won’t say it hasn’t happened, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I think of short stories and novels as two very different ways of approaching a subject. They are very separate ways of going about writing.
When you put together a collection of short stories how do you choose which stories to include? In other words, how did you decide which ten stories to include in Doors?
Obviously I pick the stories I think are the best. With Doors one of the reader-reviewers for the Press had reservations about one of the original ten stories, so I withdrew that story and replaced it with another which seemed to satisfy the reader.
I try to get some balance in the stories that make up a collection. Everyone who knows me knows I have a tragic streak in me, so I try to balance the stories in a collection. Let’s say there are ten stories, so I try to write two or three stories lighter and two or three of a more serious nature. Of ten stories in a collection I try to have three or four that are lighter, maybe more humorous than the others to get some balance and contrast.
How did you select the title for this collection? I know one of the stories is also called “Doors,” but other story titles in the collection would also seem appropriate, such as “Winter Wheat,” or “Landings,” or “Roll Call.” Why Doors?
I wanted to start this collection with a story most readers would probably like. I didn’t want to scare readers off with a story that might startle too much. Also, in every one of these stories doors occur. So the reader is looking through ten different doors and at the people who live inside that particular structure … I wanted readers to see these places as a series of doors and a series of people living beyond the threshold.
One of the reviewers points out that the majority of the stories in Doors takes place in a town called Tobaccoton, your version of Farmville. Wouldn’t Tobaccoton as a setting for all of the stories in this collection provide a unifying or thematic device?
You’re right about Tobaccoton being patented on Farmville where I lived for a number of years, a place I consider my second home. I can only say that I put stories in Doors set elsewhere simply because I wanted them in the collection. I couldn’t imagine, for example, not having the story “Landings” in this particular collection.
There are few “winners” among the characters in these stories. Most are either losers or survivors. Would you say these stories constitute a metaphor for the lives of most people living today?
I have a tragic view of life, I think largely the result of my experiences in the army in WW II. But to me tragedy is not necessarily sad—I think tragedy is the highest form of art or fiction or literature. Remember, I’m a Presbyterian, an old Calvinist, a person brought up to believe in total depravity. Life is serious, tragic—the only thing that can resolve it is something that happens in the spiritual world. Tragedy may cast you down temporarily but it will also allow you to move out of yourself and see people in a universal condition …
I’ve already spoken of the contrast that humor provides with tragedy. I’ve just finished “Wit,” the play that won the Pulitzer Prize this year. It’s a tragedy, but one that lifts the reader up. Humor marries tragedy, and the result is a universal truly that only literature can express.
Most parents are accused of having a favorite child or grandchild, although they usually deny it. Do you have a favorite among the ten stories in Doors?
My stories are all my children and I always try to treat my children and my grandchildren equally. I really can’t pick a favorite among the ten stories, and I think if I did my judgment would be flawed. So I’d just rather duck that one.
Are any of the stories in Doors autobiographical? I’m thinking especially of “Blood.”
As I’ve already said, I use what’s at hand. Things I’ve done in my life—hunting, sailing, farming, fox hunting—end up in my stories. “Blood” does have some autobiographical connections. When my father married my mother her family believed my father didn’t really belong—he wasn’t worthy or good enough for my mother. After my sister and I were born the marriage broke up, and I didn’t see my father again until twenty-five or so years later … But my father was a good man, a smart man, and he was good to my sister and to me.
The subject matter in the ten stories in Doors includes social snobbery, racism, loneliness, dishonest ministers, alcoholism, adultery, murder, poverty and suicide. Obviously these stories reflect life in contemporary America. Do you think the 90’s are worse than earlier decades in the twentieth century as far as moral values are concerned?
All of those things you mention are universal and have always been with us. I definitely think the ’90’s are much less moral than previous decades. We’re now seeing the growth of the seeds that were planted back in the 60’s. I don’t understand how a novel can be written today which doesn’t deal with religion … I’ve always tried to have some suggestion of moral content in what I write. It’s not always obvious—sometimes it’s symbolic. We’re on a down skid morally, and we’re going to pay for it somehow. If there’s one thing I believe, God is not mocked.
A colleague of mine and one of your former students, Dr. Gordon Van Ness, theorizes that he could show your progression as a writer and your developing philosophy and estimation of a changing twentieth century society by analyzing in order—in sequence—your four short story collections. Do you think such a study would support Gordon’s thesis?
Yes, I do. I’m constantly changing. I’m a different person now than I was in 1955 when my first novel came out. I think in many ways the same development could be shown by studying the novels. In most cases I was writing the novels and stories simultaneously so they would reflect each other. I certainly do think you could trace the changes in me, my writing, my outlook by studying my fiction.
Thank you very much, Mr. Hoffman, for being so generous with your time and so honest with your answers. I understand that you are completing the revisions on your sequel to Tidewater Blood. We shall certainly be looking forward to that novel, as well as to many of your short stories in the near future.
SOURCE: “Hoffman's Doors Offers Look at Human Nature,” in Farmville Herald, June 4, 1999, p. 8.
[In the following review, Van Ness offers a positive assessment of Doors.]
“Begin with an individual,” Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1926, “and before you know it you find you have created a type.” Fitzgerald’s “type,” a determined, upper-class young woman, courageous and attractive and independent, competing at life and love for the highest stakes—her future—, centered all his stories. William Hoffman’s fourth collection of stories, titled Doors, also presents a type, though one not so readily defined—an outsider who is not restricted to a particular class, race, or gender and who not only rejects traditional social values, keeping instead his or her own counsel, but also acts on distinctly personal beliefs. It is this intense individualism that distinguishes these men and women, renders them memorably large, and which in these new stories often serves as an obstacle to be overcome rather than as a source of personal salvation.
In Follow Me Home, Hoffman’s previous collection, published in 1994, he insisted upon what may only be called spirituality, a code of conduct centered not on religion so much as the realization that in the modern world all are wounded, lost, vulnerable. Consequently, what is required are the old-fashioned virtues of love, compassion, piety, humility, selflessness, and self-sacrifice. These earlier stories reveal just where “home” is as well as the idea that whatever the journey’s path, it begins and ends with the inner self rather than outward circumstance.
In a sense, Doors continues Hoffman’s examination of contemporary American culture, particularly Southern culture, by depicting the self-centered obsessions that define modern egotism and on which men and women act. For example, the narrator in the title story, a well-travelled and educated woman of breeding and class, considers herself above others and refuses to exercise simple manners when confronting those socially inferior to herself. In “Prodigal,” an estranged son believes himself better than his father, a fundamentalist preacher whose financial manipulations have built a television ministry and with whom he refuses to reconcile: “I watch these pinched and hungering people. He has learned well. His voice is balm, and they believe. Their faces lift and are made lustrous by hope and trust. His words salve their wounded spirits. He lightens their loads, and they straighten as grass rises from the weight of a departed foot.” “Landings” depicts a character badly burned during a Navy training accident whose bitterness causes him to withdraw from everything, shunning all human contact.
Occasionally, the obsession and egotism push the outsider to act violently, as in “Winter Wheat,” where jealousy and a strict religiosity cause him to murder a lower-school principal whose attentiveness to the narrator’s wife condemns him: “Every man should live by the Word,” the principal says. “‘And die by it,’” I say.
Presenting these and other individuals, Hoffman employs a sparse and concise style that owes to Hemingway rather than Fitzgerald. He would agree with the statement of another American writer, James Gould Cozzens, who wrote in a March 10, 1968 letter to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, “I’m trying to see if I can, through a fictional pattern meant to make them readable, lay out observations of mine on human behavior and the human condition using material taken directly or indirectly from my personal experience.” That is to say, not only do the characters in Hoffman’s stories stand out as humanly real, but they are also set in scenes and situations so recognizably those of Southside Virginia that they manifest Hoffman’s long residence here and reveal his keen eye for local detail and for actions that distinguish an individual.
Doors confirms Hoffman as a Presence in Southern literature and justifies his winning the Andrew Nelson Lytle and Jeanne C. Goodheart Prizes in 1989, the Dos Passos award in 1992, and the Hillsdale Prize for Fiction in 1995. The ten stories in this collection offer up a compelling look at human nature and act, as it were, as “doors” into who we are or, perhaps, what we have become here at the end of the twentieth century.
SOURCE: “Hoffman Evokes Sense of Place,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, June 27, 1999, p. F4.
[In the following brief review, Carter offers a positive evaluation of the stories in Doors.]
Few writers have an ear so finely attuned to the pulsebeat of a place as William Hoffman. In the 10 stories collected here [in Doors], all of which appeared previously in prestigious literary quarterlies, Hoffman creates a rich and lovingly detailed tapestry that encapsulates the life of Southside Virginia from its fox-hunting elite to its harried tobacco farmers, confident “come-heres,” and watermen (or, in this case, waterwomen). In the spare, precise prose that is his hallmark, Hoffman accomplishes feats of storytelling legerdemain that might well serve as a textbook for aspiring writers.
A case in point is the story “Stones,” an O. Henry prize-winner that delineates the curious combination of social progress and cultural stasis that permeates the rural South. “Stones” is about a young boy, Chris, the son of a Norfolk Southern switchman, confronting what is, to him, the inexplicable behavior of a mysterious black man who has become the owner of a house once the centerpiece of a 3,000-acre tobacco plantation.
In choosing to tell the story from Chris's point-of-view, Hoffman is able to deploy a potent blend of subtlety and dramatic irony that allows us the satisfaction of sighting the truth beyond the boy's confused—and bigoted—perception of things.
Subtlety is Hoffman's long suit. Even a story that points as inevitably toward its conclusion as “Winter Wheat,” about a subsistence farmer whose school-teacher wife betrays him, moves beyond its anticipated ending to leave us pondering the moral ambiguity of its final scene.
Hoffman's preferred modus operandi here is the first-person narrator. In several of those stories, however, the narrator is female, a difficult trick for a male writer to pull off but one that Hoffman manages deftly. He succeeds in assuming the persona of a widowed Episcopalian pricked in her pride by a wily repairman who she thinks, “if he belonged to any denomination at all it had to be some wailing, evangelical sect of rednecks.” And he speaks as well for the marvelous “stubby … rough and rugged” young lady known as Punch, who fishes crab pots for a living and discovers that strength is sometimes found, ironically, in vulnerability.
Hoffman can develop character more fully in a 4,000-word short story than most writers can in the expanse of a full-length novel. And he does so without cutting corners. From the preacher in “Prodigal,” for whom the end justifies the means, to the transplanted Philadelphian of “Humility” who tries gamely to endure church services and sewing circles before achieving a more personal triumph in an ending that will dazzle the unsuspecting reader, Hoffman gives us people caught in complex moral dilemmas that cannot be resolved with platitudes or clichés.
Not so long ago, a new book by a writer with 11 critically acclaimed novels to his credit and three previous story collections would have merited a hardcover edition and a full publicity blitz. Now that publishing has become a branch of the entertainment industry, however, literature must go begging. Readers must be grateful to the University of Missouri for seeing that these 10 stories are preserved in print.
SOURCE: “The Novels of William Hoffman: One Writer's Spiritual Odyssey from World War II to the Twenty-First Century,” in The Fictional World of William Hoffman, edited by William L. Frank, University of Missouri Press, 2000, pp. 58-87.
[In the following essay, Frank provides an overview of Hoffman's novels, which he divides into “war novels,” “Virginia/West Virginia novels,” and “philosophical/spiritual novels,” and examines the recurring motif of spiritual longing, disillusionment, and redemption in these works. According to Frank, “Hoffman's real subject is not initiation, but his own spiritual odyssey.” A portion of this essay originally appeared as a review of Furors Die, in the Farmville Heraldon March 21, 1990.]
In the forty-five years since William Hoffman published The Trumpet Unblown, he has published ten other novels, four collections of short stories, and over fifty uncollected stories. Obviously there are numerous ways to approach a body of fiction this large, written over such a long period of time. In her master’s thesis, Mary Davis has suggested that the most striking aspect of Hoffman’s novels has to do with the initiation of his male protagonist, and she has skillfully revealed how each novel shows a young man’s entry into the real world, either escaping from a sheltered innocence or reentering the world of reality from a position of withdrawal and observation.1
Yet if one stands a distance from Hoffman’s fictional world and focuses primarily on the novels, he senses that Hoffman’s real subject is not initiation, but his own spiritual odyssey. Consequently, I have divided the eleven novels into three groups: (1) the “war novels”—The Trumpet Unblown (1955), Days in the Yellow Leaf (1958), and Yancey’s War (1966); these show the effects of war both on the novels’ protagonists and on all those with whom he comes in contact following his wartime experiences; (2) the “Virginia/West Virginia novels”—A Place for My Head (1960), The Dark Mountains (1963), A Walk to the River (1970), A Death of Dreams (1973), and Tidewater Blood (1998); in these novels we discover the importance of place, the fragility of human relationships, the influence of the past upon the present, and the emptiness of material success; and (3) the “philosophical/spiritual novels”—The Land That Drank the Rain (1982), Godfires (1985), and Furors Die (1990); in these, both the central characters and the author struggle with questions of spiritual disillusionment, the possibility of redemption, the enormous power of love to suffocate or bring about renewal, and the apparent failure of religion to provide the means for acceptance or salvation.
Although The Trumpet Unblown is actually Hoffman’s second novel, it is his first published novel, and we will begin with it. The Trumpet Unblown is largely autobiographical, and ironically, because Bill Hoffman in reality is a gentle, caring man, contains more violence and brutality than any of Hoffman’s other early novels. A reader quickly discovers the influence of Ernest Hemingway, especially the Hemingway of A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the probable influence of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, especially in scenes and descriptions of military field hospitals where men are depicted as mechanical, detached. But although many of the scenes and characters are based on Hoffman’s own experiences in World War II, the novel’s protagonist, Tyree Jefferson Shelby, is not William Hoffman. He is a twentieth-century version of Crane’s Henry Fleming, becoming in the course of the novel another casualty of the war. Early in the story, Shelby tells Sergeant Moody:
“I know about the army. I volunteered for it.”
Moody sighed and took a long drink from the bottle.
“May I ask why.”
“What do you mean why?”
“Why’d you volunteer?”
“Because it was right, that’s why.”
Moody looked at him a moment, then began to laugh. … “I’m sorry,” Moody said between the laughter. “I’m sorry but I’d forgotten there were still people who could believe that sort of thing.”
But we discover that war does more than change idealism—it destroys it. In a scene near the novel’s conclusion, Shelby is back in Richmond, talking with the girl he had left behind, Cannon, who says to him:
“I was afraid you had fallen in love with some beautiful foreign woman. Did you?”
“You didn’t fall in love with anybody?”
“I fell out of love with a lot of people.”
What happens to Shelby between these two scenes is the essence of The Trumpet Unblown, and episodes throughout the novel reveal in almost incomprehensible and graphic detail the total inhumanity of man toward his fellow human beings. Whether the horror is that of a violent boxing exhibition between two individuals or that inflicted by one people—the Germans who made up the SS—upon another—the displaced persons of the Nazi-conquered Slavic states—it is unspeakable.
Deadened by the war he had voluntarily entered, Shelby “recovers” in a hospital in Europe, and upon his return to the States is sent to a rehabilitation center, where he puts off as long as he can his eventual return to Richmond. Upon his arrival in Richmond, Shelby realizes that Thomas Wolfe was right—“You can’t go home again”:
His furlough was for thirty days, and that was the longest time he ever lived through. He was determined to hurt his parents as little as possible, but hurt was extremely difficult to avoid. His parents’ world was such a complex of traditions, honors and loves that there was no language left with which to communicate.
There are no heroes in this novel; only, as Moody has already said, choices between evils, or the lesser of two evils. A case in point is Shelby’s choice between Blizzard and Petras. Superficially, there seems no decision on the part of the reader: Blizzard is obviously the worse of the two—cruel, sadistic, unthinking, uncaring, totally devoid of sensitivity, compassion, sentiment, in matters large and small, whether he is defiling a picture of Shelby’s girlfriend or literally destroying another human being in a physical encounter. The Greek, Petras, on the other hand, befriends Shelby, at times treats him kindly, even occasionally shares some of his ill-gotten war booty with Shelby; but beneath the skin—under the smiling facade—Petras is every bit as inhuman as Blizzard: he lies, bribes, deceives, treats people with contempt, betrays those who have befriended him, uses German civilians to satisfy his physical needs, and in the final brutal and bloody encounter with Blizzard, inflicts unnecessary humiliation and pain upon the already beaten Blizzard.
The book’s title announces that there will be no heroes in this saga of World War II, that the trumpet will not only not blow for Tyree Shelby, it will not blow for any of the assorted characters of death and destruction in this novel. Such a rich and complex book has many primary and secondary themes, but ultimately this book reflects a belief that despite everything encountered, there will be a tomorrow for humanity, and perhaps—we can at least hope so—that tomorrow will be bright. At one point late in the novel, Shelby’s closest friend, Sergeant Moody, who has witnessed all that Shelby has seen, expresses a basic optimism that denies at least some of the lingering horror created by many of the novel’s scenes:
“You know,” Moody said one day when he and Shelby were lying in the sun, “sometimes I get a crazy thought.”
“I think maybe the human race will survive in spite of everything.”
“The sun feels good all right.”
“That’s what I mean. Maybe there’s hope for a man who can enjoy the sun.”
Although Days in the Yellow Leaf was the first novel Hoffman wrote, it was not published until after The Trumpet Unblown.Days in the Yellow Leaf remains Hoffman’s favorite among his current production of eleven novels,2 possibly simply because it was his first. More likely, however, he recalls it with special affection because it contains almost all of the motifs and themes, directly or indirectly, that dominate his work. First, there is the son’s search for his relationship with a distant father, which also appears in A Place for My Head, Godfires, and Furors Die. Second, there is the mindless brutality that occurs in a cold and seemingly meaningless world. We have already witnessed this theme in The Trumpet Unblown, and we see it again and again in his other works. In Days in the Yellow Leaf, for example, the novel’s protagonist, Tod Young, is held by an accomplice while the novel’s bully, Pinky Lemon, administers a mind-deadening beating with a wrapped bicycle chain. Third, there are the devastating and endless effects of war, a theme of course prevalent in Hoffman’s three war novels. Fourth, there is the theme of a world ruled ruthlessly by the rich and powerful, which we see again in A Walk to the River, The Dark Mountains, A Death of Dreams, Godfires, and Furors Die. And a final motif involves the protagonist’s attempts to understand himself, the world, which he has not created, and those whom he loves so deeply.
Hoffman’s second published novel takes its title from Byron’s “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-sixth Year”: “My days are in the yellow leaf; / The flowers and fruits of love are gone”; from the novel’s opening scenes until its close, the reader feels that he is witnessing the inevitable playing out of a classic Greek tragedy. Tod Young’s main problems center around his inability to accept his father, the epitome of the self-made business man: a former junk dealer who has clawed his way to the top during the Great Depression, he is now president of one of the two local banks—a strong man, a fighter, a hunter. Tod, on the other hand, is sensitive, compassionate, and in his father’s eyes too tender, not tough enough for the world in which Tod must live. The novel, divided into six parts, opens with a brief history of Tod’s father (symbolically named Will), Tod, and the novel’s other principal characters, that tells us how these characters happened to find themselves, in the year following World War II, together in a small town “over the mountains from Virginia.” We quickly discover that before Tod is thirty he has been a conscientious objector (over the strong objections of his father, who labels him a coward and a quitter), a highly decorated hero of World War II, a preministerial student, a newspaper reporter, and finally a loan officer in his father’s bank. Along the way, Tod had thought “and believed he had discovered the principle he was looking for. He decided about the only thing a man could do was to live without hurting. … He made himself a promise he would never hurt anyone again” (106).
But the lesson that Tod learns in the course of the novel is that we hurt without intending, that despite all the care we take to avoid it, we hurt most keenly those who are closest to us. Tod spends half of his free time protecting Danny Little, “a little man with a bald head and a limp,” who had shot his own kneecap off during the war to get out of combat and who ended up serving time in Leavenworth. There, he slowly lost his nerve, his dignity, and his mind; upon his release from prison, he is one of the town’s derelicts, teased, bruised, and belittled by the bullies who inhabit all of Hoffman’s worlds. When Danny is forced to play pool for money and loses badly, and Tod is unable to help because his father refuses his request for an advance on his salary, Danny cashes a bad check; following his arrest, he hangs himself in his cell to avoid going back to jail for an extended sentence. Tod, unable to forgive his father for refusing to help, seeks escape in his marriage to Grace.
Initially, the marriage is a good one; the couple appear genuinely in love. But Tod refuses to remain in the house his father had given them as a wedding present, and when Grace falls while trying to hang curtains in their small apartment, and the baby they are expecting is delivered stillborn, the relationship disintegrates. Grace sleeps with Tod’s best friend, and Tod, in a scene reminiscent of Greek tragedy, slays the two lovers with a pair of shotgun blasts. The seeming inevitability of the evolving action recalls Robert Penn Warren’s image of the spiderweb in the Cass Mastern episode of All the King’s Men:
Cass Mastern lived for a few years and in that time he learned that the world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping.3
The only relief to this otherwise increasingly darkening tale is the reconciliation between Will and Tod that takes place in part 6, a single chapter of only seven pages, almost an epilogue. It occurs as Will walks into his library as Tod is in the act of taking a.30–06 Husquarna from his father’s gun cabinet, intending to commit suicide:
“No,” he said, coming to Tod and taking the rifle out of his hand. He ejected the shell, leaned back against the wall, and clasped the rifle to himself. “No,” he said, putting his face in his hand and shaking it.
“Forgive me,” Tod said, taking hold of his arm. “Please forgive me.”
Suddenly they were holding each other tightly, the rifle pressed between them. Tod led him to a chair and knelt beside it. …
“I won’t do it again,” Tod said, taking hold of the hand. “I promise.” …
“Forgive me,” Tod said.
His father held him close.
“A father doesn’t have to forgive his son anything.”
They stood together, still holding each other.
Although Yancey’s War was not the next of Hoffman’s published works, it clearly belongs to the “war novels” group. As the novel’s dust jacket reveals, it is a novel “about two unsuitable soldiers, one man’s wife, and the wartime army.” Yancey’s War is the first of several of Hoffman’s novels to employ the device of a dual protagonist, and the title itself conveys the concept of a dual reference; first, that World War II becomes for Marvin Yancey “his war.” But more importantly, the title also suggests the internal conflict, or war, within Yancey as he tries to come to terms with the fact that the medals awarded him during the First World War not only were unearned but ironically were given him because he was the sole survivor of his platoon—a survivor only because he deserted his comrades when the shooting began.
At the novel’s opening the point of view is that of a first-person narrator, initially focusing on Yancey: “Unlike the rest of us, Marvin Yancey was not young” (1). Yancey obviously is both out of shape and out of place with the younger inductees:
… At twenty-five I was near the average age. A few were in their early and middle thirties. Yancey, however, was well into his forties.
He sagged in the yellow-hot sun like a stick of butter set on end.
The soft blubber of his rolypoly body hung over his shirt collar and drooped about his belt. The web belt itself seemed to be keeping his belly from popping out of his shirt and spilling to the ground. As he stood at attention, he made me think of a slapstick comedian who at any instant would go into an act ridiculing the Army.
The reader soon discovers that unlike most older men in the unit, Yancey is a volunteer, not a draftee. He soon attaches himself to the novel’s other protagonist, Charles Elgar, despite Elgar’s wish that Yancey would leave him alone:
I couldn’t escape him. He followed me into latrines and squeezed beside me at the mess hall. In ranks he maneuvered to stand next to me. He pretended not to see my annoyance. Wherever I looked, I met his watery, winking eyes.
Elgar shortly discovers a second odd fact about Marvin Yancey; in addition to being a volunteer, he reveals during routine questioning for future assignment that he is a veteran of World War I, having served in the infantry in France. But Elgar and the other men of the unit learn something else about Yancey during basic training, and that is that Marvin Yancey is an unprincipled brownnoser, briber, and con artist, who gets out of KP by buttering up the cooks and apple-polishing the noncoms: “On Monday everybody except Yancey was again assigned to KP” (19).
Yancey soon discovers that not everyone in the army can be conned. Their basic training platoon sergeant, “a hulking Slav named Bulgan,” recognizes Yancey for what he is and is determined to run Yancey out of the army (28). He gives him “double time around the drill field,” extra marching drills and exercises, and zeros in on using the obstacle course as Yancey’s Waterloo (32). But Yancey’s medals save him where his conniving, conning, and brownnosing could not.
As the unit nears the end of basic training, Yancey confides to Elgar, who has been planning all along to apply to OCS, that he, too, intends to apply, and Elgar, having seen how Yancey could talk or con his way through basic, begins to wonder if Yancey could help him get into and through OCS. Thus the stage is set for the two to attend OCS together. But before OCS there is a seven-day furlough, and after visiting his family in Richmond, Virginia, for a few days, Elgar accepts Yancey’s invitation to visit him at his home outside of Washington, D.C. There begins an initiation for Charles Elgar that is to affect him profoundly for the rest of the novel, for on his first night at Yancey’s home, Yancey’s wife, Martha, offers herself to him:
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she told me, her voice completely calm. She could have been discussing a flower arrangement. “We share separate rooms, and he won’t come looking for me. He’s drunk.”
She leaned to the night table to use the ashtray. At the same moment she smiled—a smile no longer thin and cold. Rather it was lascivious. On her proper, ladylike face it was shocking.
With a slow, deliberate movement, she crushed out the cigarette, stood, and crossed to my bed. Her housecoat rustled. I smelled her perfume. She sat beside me, and the bed sank under her weight.
“It’s chilly out here,” she said, hugging herself. “Why don’t you let me in there with you.”
Although Elgar, afraid of a sudden appearance by Yancey, refuses Martha’s advances on this occasion, the stage is set for a later and more lasting relationship. When Charles and Yancey return from their leaves, they both enter OCS. Yancey manages to bribe his way through, but Elgar piles up enough demerits for minor infractions, many of which were caused by Yancey, that he flunks out. Sent to a new camp where a new unit is being formed, Elgar—partially to get even with Yancey—calls Martha and invites her to visit him. Much to his surprise she accepts, and Martha and he begin an idyllic interlude during which he falls in love with Martha.
Elgar soon discovers, however, that he is but one in a chain of Martha’s conquests. He visits Martha while on furlough when Yancey is away, and she informs him that she is in love with another man. Hurt and bewildered, feeling more like a lost little boy than a jilted lover, Charles leaves that same evening, returns to his home in Richmond in a daze, and then almost immediately to his army base, feeling “old, tired, and without hope” (226).
When Elgar’s battalion is finally sent overseas even though the war is already winding down, he suffers the cruel irony of discovering that his number one personal enemy, Yancey, now a captain, is his immediate commanding officer. Yancey, however, is so totally inept as a leader that his superior officers transfer a majority of his enlisted men into other units as replacements, and Yancey is given command of a single line laundry unit, and sent to serve the then-advancing and soon victorious American army. But ironically the allied military successes have stretched the supply lines too thin, and Yancey’s company is alerted for a move into Germany. Yancey, however, still has not learned how to read a military map, and as the hours tick by without their making contact with the American forces, Elgar and the other men in the unit realize that Yancey is lost and has led them into a literal no-man’s-land.
As the convoy of laundry trucks, led by Yancey in his jeep, snakes its way through the narrow streets of an unnamed town, one of the men whispers to Elgar that he thinks he has seen a German soldier at a window. Within a few minutes the road is blocked by a German personnel carrier, and simultaneously windows open, German soldiers appear, and burp guns erupt in a steady stream of bullets. The company is split, and Elgar, Yancey, and five others seek refuge in a house that will become for many a tomb. For two days and nights the rapidly diminishing band hold off German flamethrowers, grenade attacks, and an almost constant stream of small-arms fire, but on the third day the rumbling approach of a German tank all but guarantees their collective deaths. It is at this point in the novel that Yancey becomes an unwilling hero. Knowing full well that his cowardly actions during the siege will disgrace him for eternity, Yancey takes a homemade gasoline bomb, crawls out on the roof of the house, and lobs the bomb in the direction of the tank, stopping it in its tracks. Several hours later, hearing nothing in the street and receiving no German fire, Charles ventures forth waving a white flag, but there are no Germans left to accept his surrender. Later Elgar asks, almost rhetorically, how Yancey could have done it: How could the most cowardly of all, facing certain death, have willingly given up his life to take out the German tank? It is the soldier nicknamed the Professor who replies:
“Human beings now and then are capable of rising above themselves. Only now and then, but it’s the best part of us. No matter how corrupt, degraded, and filthy we become, we can commit acts which are far more than the total of ourselves. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that a man brave for one second—and everybody has a second of bravery in him—can change the course of history.”
In Yancey’s final and heroic action, there is a lesson for the young Charles Elgar, and indeed for all of us.
The second group of Hoffman’s novels, the five Virginia/West Virginia novels, are set in rural areas or small towns of the region and are concerned as much with the influence of the past upon the present as they are with the present. These works reveal Hoffman’s knowledge and understanding of the land and its people as the characters strive, frequently without success, to pursue relationships and self-understanding that will enable them to achieve goals if not to realize dreams.
The fictional setting of Hoffman’s third published novel, A Place for My Head, has a real counterpart; the town of McCloud is based on Farmville, Virginia, and the novel’s King County is a thinly disguised Prince Edward County. The story revolves around Angus McCloud, a young but spiritually dead lawyer. A descendent of the once prominent family for whom the town was named, he has not too skillfully presided over the selling of his patrimony; the family’s original four thousand acres is presently reduced to two hundred. (In certain ways the disintegration of the McCloud family brings to mind the decline of the Compsons, so vividly captured in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, although Angus McCloud is a much more sympathetic character than is Jason Compson.) Hoffman suggests the sterility both of the land and of Angus in an early scene when Angus’s perpetual date, Laura Lee, chides him for his excessive drinking:
“I’m not drunk. I wish I were. God I wish I were.”
“Well, it’s not nice. That’s why my father doesn’t like you.”
Angus started to answer, then shut his mouth and drove on. She was dead. They were both dead. They belonged in the cemetery. Even then there would be nothing to write on the tombstones, no dates of birth, no lines of endearment, nothing but two slabs of blank marble shining in the moonlight.
The totality of Angus’s despair is deftly revealed in a scene in which he attempts to engage Laura Lee in a sexual encounter:
“I’m sorry, Angus. It would just be silly.”
“You could have tried. It wouldn’t have hurt either of us. It might have conceivably helped one of us.” …
“It’s too late for us. Maybe we’ve known each other for too long.”
He started the car. He had known all along it would come to this. They were both dead, and had he succeeded, that too would have been dead—an obscene, mechanical act.
Angus’s potential salvation and redemption appear temporarily in the person of Mrs. Caroline Gainer, a woman Angus has worshiped since boyhood. Following a chance meeting, Caroline encourages a romantic interest between herself and Angus, but Angus fails to realize that Caroline is leading him on only in the hope of making her husband, George, jealous. Angus, believing he has a chance to claim Caroline for his own, builds up his law practice by winning a suit for a black client against one of the leading families of McCloud. Believing a false rumor of a new international corporation’s moving its headquarters to Southside, he also foolishly and hastily enters into a partnership to develop most of the remaining family estate by building houses on speculation. He even voluntarily seeks help for his growing dependence on alcohol at an alcoholic treatment center in nearby Richmond—all for the sake of wooing Caroline and winning her from her husband.
Angus’s world crumbles when first George and then Caroline let him know that they are back together, stronger in their love and relationship than before:
“I love him,” Caroline said, raising her face. “I can’t help that, can I? You can’t help who you love. I did my best. I can’t help it if I couldn’t love you.”
He was able to keep going for a while. His life had a certain momentum which pushed him on whether he cared or not. … Even the great loneliness didn’t kill. After a while the pain dulled somewhat, and he entered a kind of twilight zone in which there were no emotions.
Angus slept a good deal. He fixed his own meals, opening a package of soda crackers and a ten-cent tin of Vienna sausage. He wandered through the house at night. And he sat in the chair staring out the window—rocking, rocking, rocking.
A Place for My Head calls to mind two earlier classic American novels. One can compare it to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in that Angus’s dream is similar to that of Jay Gatsby in his pursuit of Daisy, and in both novels the destruction of the dream is equally disastrous. Daisy Buchanan in many of her actions is certainly like Hoffman’s Caroline Gainer, and when both characters decide to return to their respective husbands, the worlds of Jay Gatsby and Angus McCloud cave in. Similarly, A Place for My Head can be compared to Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: Both novels end with their protagonists’ dreams interrupted if not wholly dashed, and both novels end with their protagonists looking out a window and “rocking, rocking, rocking”—an action that suggests motion without direction or advancement, similar to the imagery in T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” such as the “pair of ragged claws” that move about at the bottom of the ocean.
My discussion of Hoffman’s fourth novel, The Dark Mountains, is abbreviated here, since it is brilliantly discussed by Martha E. Cook in her contribution to the present collection. It is impossible to suggest in a few pages the range, scope, and depth of Hoffman’s study of the coal industry in this novel, or to do justice to some of the finest character studies in modern American literature. As W. L. Frank Jr. has suggested earlier:
It is difficult to determine just who the protagonist is in the novel. Is it James MacGlauglin, the owner of the mines worth millions of dollars, who rose from nothing? Is it James (Jamie) St. George, James’s grandson, who loves his mother’s father, James, but despises his own father, a do-nothing alcoholic and transplanted Virginia aristocrat? Or is it Paul Crittenden, the college friend of Jamie’s who leaves his once wealthy but now financially troubled family in the comforts of Richmond, Virginia, to enter the West Virginia wilderness and work in James’s coal mines?4
When William Hoffman discusses The Dark Mountains, he invokes Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, which Hoffman calls “a most beautifully crafted book.” Following one of Warren’s techniques in that novel, Hoffman uses the dual protagonist, as Mary Davis has argued.5 Also, just as Warren used Huey Long to characterize Willie Stark, Hoffman bases the character of James MacGlauglin on Hoffman’s own great-grandfather, an uneducated Scottish immigrant. Hoffman’s fascination with coal mining led him to talk at length with miners as well as to visit operating coal mines as he gathered materials for this novel. The result is a highly realistic novel that traces three generations of the coal-mining MacGlauglin family during the years of the development of labor unions. It is James MacGlauglin who accomplishes the American dream. He builds his own town, an industry, and a dynasty from the rich coal veins of the mountains of West Virginia, and he lives long enough to see the decline and fall of his kingdom, first assaulted and weakened by the miners’ union and finally occupied by U.S. Army troops.
Not only does James rule his miners with an iron hand, but he rules his family in much the same fashion. His family has problems: his daughter and only surviving child, Sara, is busy with her own children, who are her crosses to bear; his grandson, Jamie, is a womanizer and will do anything to keep from being like his weak and pseudoaristocratic father, William St. George; and Faith, his grand-daughter, is a delicate, sickly young woman who tries to protect her father from the roughness of the MacGlauglins. Into the midst of this family, invited by Jamie, comes Paul Crittenden. He learns much—good and bad—from his association with the MacGlauglins.
Although the novel’s major conflict exists between James and the labor unions, it is Paul Crittenden who gradually moves to center stage. James, believing that his land is God-given, that he is being “rewarded for taking risks and undergoing hardships,” (359) tries desperately to keep the unions out of his mountains and out of his coalfields. He has worked long and hard to build up his empire and cannot see any justice in the union’s efforts. But it is Paul, looking to the future, who ultimately brings order, maturity, and stability to the family. In this respect Paul resembles both Jack Burden of All the King’s Men and Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby in that, by novel’s end, he is ready to take his justly earned place in the world he has helped to mold and create. Thus, The Dark Mountains is, as Mary Davis has demonstrated, both an initiation novel and a novel about “the resiliency of the human spirit.”
Hoffman’s sixth novel, A Walk to the River, is told by a first-person narrator, Jackson LeJohn, a broken, dispirited man of only forty-two. Hoffman’s opening sentence describes Jackson as “a dead man who sat …” (11); his first description of another important character in the novel, Doc Setter, intensifies the mood and tone: “I’d never seen Setter when he didn’t appear tired. … Like me, he was a mournful man. … He knew mortality and death the way some men knew their wives, and it’d killed the spirit in him” (12).
But Jackson is shocked into reality by Doc Setter’s explanation of the reason for his early morning visit: “A member of the congregation claims his wife was lechered” (13). Not only is the accuser the most important man in town, Lou Gaines, aggressive, wealthy, influential, but the man he accuses in the small town of Black Leaf is the church’s minister, Reverend Paul Elgin, and because Jackson is the reluctant chairman of the church’s board it is his lot to carry out the investigation—to separate fact from rumor and speculation. While Jackson is shocked by Setter’s story, when left alone, he describes himself as “a man holding a rattlesnake: no way to let go without being bit” (16). In this way, Hoffman sets up the principal thrust of the story: Jackson LeJohn’s pursuit of the truth behind Preacher Paul Elgin’s alleged sexual assault on Caroline Gaines, the beautiful, haughty, aristocratic wife of Black Leaf’s leading citizen.
Jackson soon discovers more truth than he had wished for, for not only had Elgin led a wild and turbulent life before his ordination, but so, too, had Caroline Gaines, before her marriage to Lou. Counting on Jackson’s confidence and integrity, Caroline confirms what Jackson has learned: She and Paul had known each other extremely well “in another country.” Caroline, however, has no intention of losing what she has fought so hard to acquire; she will neither pressure her husband to withdraw the charges, nor admit before an open hearing with the congregation to her earlier life with Paul.
On the day appointed for the hearing—a hot, sweltering, summer day—the church is packed, newspaper reporters are everywhere, and Jackson must preside over the congregational meeting of the pastor and his parishioners. Once the formality of reading minutes is accomplished, Jackson announces that “The floor’s open,” and immediately Lou Gaines stands: “I’m charging the minister of this church with assaulting my wife. I’m charging him with invading my home and attempting rape” (303). In the brief debate that follows it is evident to all that Paul will lose. Every time he scores a point with the church members, Lou Gaines rises to remind them of what Paul did to his wife.
The vote against Paul is overwhelming, although not unanimous, and the next day a sadder but perhaps not much wiser Jackson LeJohn goes to the manse, wishes Paul well, and watches as Paul, his wife, Helen, and their children drive out of town in a battered, dirty, smoke-belching old Dodge. The novel ends with Jackson and his son at the river, Jackson determined to see to it that his long-neglected son at least “got all his boyhood,” and realizing that perhaps he, Jackson, wasn’t dead after all: “I bit down on my sadness. I thought that even pain had goodness. A dead man couldn’t suffer. To grieve, a man had to be alive and to care about something” (336).
One could argue that the novel’s principal theme is one of stoical acceptance. But at the same time, while the evidence is not yet complete on the influence of Hemingway on Hoffman, certainly Jackson’s struggles throughout the novel remind the reader of the principal characteristics of Hemingway’s code hero. Whether the comparison be to Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea, Robert Wilson of “The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber,” or Pedro Romero of The Sun Also Rises, Jackson’s actions display many of the characteristics of the code hero—persistence, daring, playing by the rules of the game, adherence to what is right, discharging one’s responsibilities, accepting the consequences of one’s own actions, fair-mindedness. Jackson adheres to all of these as he seeks the truth about Paul Elgin and Caroline Gaines, traveling the different paths that each took to Black Leaf, Virginia, and the night of their “walk to the river.”
Hoffman’s seventh novel, and the fourth of what I have called his Virginia/West Virginia novels, is masterfully analyzed by Dabney Stuart later in this collection. Indeed, to say anything about it here would appear redundant. Suffice it to say that A Death of Dreams is another story of a spiritual odyssey, this time about Guy Dion, who although not completely spiritually dead, is slowly dying, reminiscent of many of Graham Greene’s characters in such novels as A Burnt-Out Case and The Heart of the Matter. Guy, an enormously successful businessman but a less-successful husband and father, agrees upon his wife’s urging to enter Westfield, a hospital close to Richmond, Virginia, for a brief period of rest and recovery from his “nerves.” Almost immediately Guy realizes that he is in a hospital for the treatment of alcoholics and other deserters and refugees from the twentieth century’s success-oriented and -dominated society. When he meets with the chief physician of the hospital to seek a release because he feels he does not belong there, Guy discovers to his horror that he has been betrayed by his wife and two children—that he has been legally committed.
While a major portion of the novel centers around Guy’s hospital treatment and his discovery of many former friends and business associates among the patients, the novel’s high point occurs after he engineers his escape. He flees to the mountains where he had grown up (for Hoffman, mountains are almost always symbols of power, serenity, strength, and hope for the future). Hoffman leaves Guy in the mountains, like those in Eliot’s Waste Land, thinking of “ways to put his house in order” (324).
Hoffman’s most recent novel, Tidewater Blood, and the last of what I have termed his Virginia/West Virginia novels, belongs in this category rather than the philosophical/spiritual group primarily because of its setting, plot, and themes. The setting shifts between Tidewater Virginia and the now-deserted coalfields of the mountains of West Virginia. The story involves the return of the novel’s protagonist, Charlie LeBlanc, to West Virginia to learn about his family’s past. This investigation of the protagonist’s past most clearly distinguishes Tidewater Blood from Hoffman’s other novels of the eighties and nineties. Just as the Cass Mastern episode of All the King’s Men is essential to Jack Burden’s acceptance of the past in that novel, so too is Charlie’s quest for the secrets of his own father’s beginnings in West Virginia before Charlie can again live in the present.
Tidewater Blood begins with a brief prologue in which we learn that a powerful Tidewater Virginia aristocratic family, while gathered to celebrate its 250-year founding, is blown to pieces while standing on the portico of the family mansion. The attention of the investigating authorities is immediately and solely focused on the black sheep of the family, Charles MacKay LeBlanc. Charlie, a Vietnam vet, has brought shame and humiliation to the proud LeBlanc family because he had been court-martialed, sent to Leavenworth, and given a dishonorable discharge. He in turn has repudiated the LeBlanc name, taking the name Jim Moultrie, a name he says he took from a tombstone in Tampa, Florida.
But there are too many people in Tidewater and King County who remember Charlie, what he looks like, and what he had done to earn the animosity of his own family, so it is Charlie LeBlanc that the reader follows throughout the novel.
When Charlie is apprehended by the authorities he is staying in a shack at Lizard Inlet on the Chesapeake Bay, existing on vegetables grown in his garden and oysters and fish from the salty marshes. Taken in handcuffs to the county seat, Jessup’s Wharf, Charlie is viciously maltreated by the sheriff’s deputies, who assume his guilt. Because there is no solid evidence against Charlie he is released with the provision that he sign in at the local jail each morning by eight, and he is forbidden to leave the county. But Charlie knows that unless he proves his innocence he will indeed be found guilty, and given the multiple murders, he will in all probability be sentenced to death for the crime.
What relates this novel to the earlier novels of the Virginia/West Virginia category is Charlie’s discovery of the sources of his family’s wealth and the influence of previous generations of the LeBlanc family upon the members of the present generation. Tidewater Blood has essentially two main threads running through it. First, it is a story of self-discovery and self-realization on Charlie’s part; one of Hoffman’s major achievements in the course of the novel is the deftness and skill with which he transforms Charles LeBlanc from his initial appearance as a dirty, smelly hermit to a human being with daring, courage, ingenuity, and integrity, an evolution that grows on the reader along with the novel. But, at the same time, Tidewater Blood is also a novel of revenge. Who could have hated all living descendants of the LeBlanc family passionately enough to arrange for their simultaneous deaths? And who had the ingenuity to plan and carry out the wholesale murders without placing himself in jeopardy, while at the same time see to it that the authorities and everyone else even remotely connected with the LeBlanc name would assume that the murderer was Charles MacKay LeBlanc? The murderer had intended to place the sole survivor of the LeBlanc name in the custody of the state, which would surely execute him for the multiple murders—thus obliterating the LeBlanc name from the face of the earth.
Through a process worthy of Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin, Charlie soon reaches the conclusion that the solution to the crime lies not at the LeBlanc mansion in King County, but in the coalfields of West Virginia, the source of the LeBlanc wealth. Branded as a known felon and fugitive, Charlie heads for the hills and mountains of West Virginia, hounded by state police from two states, and narrowly escaping arrest on several occasions. Along the way he is aided by a wonderful cast of characters, the majority of them also outcasts and dropouts from society: Arthur Moss, a retired salesman and amateur historian; Blackie, a young, tough widow trying to make a living running a bar and truck stop; Cornstalk Skagg, a friend of man who literally lives in a cave; Aunt Jessie, an elderly mountain woman; Zeke Webb, an old army buddy from his days in Vietnam; and Dr. Alexander B. Bingham, a community college physics teacher. Befriended by the friendless, Charlie begins to unlock terrible secrets from the LeBlanc past.
How Hoffman puts all of these ingredients together and solves the riddles behind the multiple murders is, of course, the essence of Tidewater Blood. But in writing this novel, William Hoffman is not merely writing a mystery novel, or an interesting and entertaining classic “whodunit.” Hoffman is still very much the master of language, point of view, setting, characterization, and scene. With a single sentence Hoffman can evoke the isolation and loneliness of his fugitive protagonist: “People flowed around me as if I were a rock in a stream, especially the alarmed ladies” (45). Or consider Charlie’s state of mind during one of his visits to Bellerive, the LeBlanc family estate: “Drinking from the bottle I allowed no childhood memories to take full shape. When they attempted to emerge, I dismembered them” (76).
It is Hoffman’s insistence that no one can master the present without understanding and accepting the past that clearly places Tidewater Blood in the Virginia/West Virginia phase of his work.
Of the eleven novels under consideration in this essay, three have clearly been labeled Hoffman’s war novels and five treated together as his Virginia/West Virginia novels; yet the next three to be discussed are also set in roughly the same geographical region. Why, then, the separate treatment? The answer to that question will be better explained as we discuss these three novels, but one reason for the grouping is suggested by the dates of publication for all of the novels: the first seven novels were published between 1955 and 1973, with intervals of no more than four years between any two, and with several published within two years of their predecessors. Yet the last of the first seven novels was published in 1973, and the first of the last four in 1982, a span of nine years. It is my suggestion that what ties these three novels together and at the same time clearly separates them from his earlier work is Hoffman’s growing concern with the question of morality and—because the two are intertwined in the minds of many twentieth-century readers—the role that religion plays or fails to play in our daily lives. Thus, I describe these three novels as his philosophical/spiritual novels, and I suggest that the nine-year interval between A Death of Dreams and The Land That Drank the Rain was for William Hoffman a period of contemplation, deliberation, and resolution.
Although other critics have noted the similarity between The Land That Drank the Rain and Thoreau’s Walden, I believe that the most compelling aspects of Hoffman’s book are the profusion of religious symbols and biblical allusions and the Christian themes of innocence, awareness, recognition, and redemption.
The novel focuses initially on the attempt of its symbolically named protagonist, Claytor Carson, to rid himself of the sin, degradation, and shame that had come to characterize his materialist life in California. In an obviously symbolic journey to the East, Clay seeks salvation in an abandoned coalfield in the mountains of Kentucky, where, in contact and conflict with a stream of minor characters, Clay undergoes the modern equivalent of the trials of Job. The novel opens with Clay’s attempts to dissociate himself completely from his past. He is in the process of burning his nearly new Cadillac Eldorado and burying it at an illegal dump:
Hillbillies had slowed their Fords and Chevys … to sling refuse into the dismal riverbed. Skeletons of cars were down there—rusty, weed-twined, toppled into the dark, shallow water. … Claytor stepped away from the Caddy. It drifted forward … he struck the barn match and threw it through the rear window. … An explosion shoved him backwards as fire singed his face. … The Caddy settled on a side like an animal lying down. … Seats boiled and split like flesh. … Earth around the pyre became moist and steamed. … For a time he scented the Caddy’s corpse.
For the next several days Clay’s life becomes a process of purgation. He builds a small pile of the Caddy’s registration papers; his driver’s license; his credit, insurance, and country club membership cards; and business cards from “men he’s lunched and plotted with: bankers, engineers, lawyers. … He built a tepee of everything and struck a barn match.” Later, we are told, he is still seen “casting things off. He owned a wristwatch that ran silently, a battery from another life pushing time through the mechanism. … He climbed to a rise” and “threw it as far as he could” (10, 11).
Determined to wrest a living from the land, Clay “worried that the land was so wounded nothing would grow” (9). But with the arrival of spring his hopes for a new start quicken.
He looked at the sun, and it appeared larger and a brighter yellow. … He felt warmth settling around him. …
He heard water everywhere. Wrinkles of the land filled. Streams that had never appeared on the land before flowed in pale gullies. His waterfall was so thickened it surged far beyond the stone basin and splashed on rocks well down the channel.
Thus far the images have been suggestive and evocative, rather than direct. One recalls Fitzgerald’s descriptions of the wasteland on Gatsby’s Long Island, or those of T. S. Eliot throughout much of his Waste Land. Surely the pyres that destroy the symbols of Clay’s materialistic life suggest Eliot’s purgatorial and cleansing fires of Buddha’s “Fire Sermon” and Augustine’s “Lord, Thou pluckst me burning.” But Hoffman’s Claytor is still a long way from recovery and redemption, and it is here, early in the novel, that the reader meets one of the most unlikely means to grace and salvation in any fictional world. If ever an author has created a character with whom the reader undergoes a constantly changing love-hate relationship, that character is Hoffman’s Vestil Skank, the illegitimate son of Renna Skank and any one of twenty-eight members of a high school football team.
Vestil passes himself off to Clay as Nash Shawnee, a song-writing, guitar-playing, would-be entertainer, in the hope of convincing Clay to finance his career and launch his professional debut. He watches Clay constantly, hoping to discover some secret about Clay’s background that would give him a hold over Clay. When Clay, not wishing to have any relationship with anyone, repeatedly runs Vestil off and reports Vestil’s illegal moonshine still to the local sheriff, Vestil seeks vengeance by assuming the role of Job’s tormentor. He sets fire to Clay’s cabin, uproots his garden vegetables, and at night sledgehammers down the newly mortared stones that Clay has set by day.
Vestil has been repudiated by his own family—his mother had long ago deserted him and his father could never acknowledge him. Even Vestil’s own grandfather labels him “‘A child of sin. … The print of Satan’s on his back, a birthmark like a brown moon. … I tried to keep it off him. … I believed I could sear evil from him with the hot power of Jehovah’s word, but he smelled out sin like a stallion sniffing mares’” (86). And yet Vestil’s cries to escape from the mountains before they overwhelm him become prayers that Claytor ultimately responds to: “‘Oh, God, I got to get out. Jesus, ain’t anybody listening? I got to go’” (61). Vestil “began crying. He was a kernel of sick young flesh swaying and weeping by the lifeless river” (109). He “looked so small and vulnerable on the river bank, folded, an embryo on its feet, his skinny arms helpless white lines. Why, Claytor thought, he’s a child” (108). It is this view of Vestil that prompts Clay to regard him in a totally different light and to determine to help him escape his seeming fate. The view of Vestil that Claytor has at this moment is sudden, unexpected, and almost visionary.
But Clay’s desire to help Vestil is interrupted by the sudden and wholly unexpected appearance of Clay’s wife, Bea, and her malicious attempt to entice him once again into their former, perverse ways. Throughout the novel, from flashbacks and in bits and pieces, the reader has been putting together Clay’s story, and the events and incidents that have driven him eastward to seek expiation, redemption, and ultimately, resurrection.
If Bea had accompanied Clay to his own personal hell, and if Vestil becomes the means to Clay’s eventual salvation, it is William Hoffman himself who insists on the biblical parallels one finds in this novel. Early in the novel, during Clay’s first contacts with Vestil, Vestil throws a stone at Clay as he works in his garden:
Claytor tried to dodge, but it struck his hip and caused him to stumble.
“I hope I broke a bone!” Vestil shouted. “You got any idea how hard I had to work to get money for that stuff? I hope your blood runs on the ground and the damn dogs lick it!”
In one stunning line Hoffman recalls the biblical story of King Ahab who had done “evil in the sight of the Lord,” and to whom the Lord said, “In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood, even then … because thou has sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the Lord.”6
There is another character in The Land That Drank the Rain who, although seemingly minor, plays a significant role in Clay’s eventual redemption. Although no single prototype can be found for this individual in the Bible, his name, the role he plays, and his advice to Clay all suggest Hoffman’s intention and focus. The character is the local judge in Crowtown, Judge John Buskirk Montgomery. The name, of course, suggests “mountain,” which in at least two of Hoffman’s other novels symbolizes hope. In addition to the possible name symbolism of the judge, he is quite clearly seen in the novel as a symbol of authority, and to Clay himself he becomes a father figure; thoughts of the judge frequently recall to Clay’s mind thoughts and sayings of his own long-dead father, who had been a minister. On Clay’s first visit to Judge Montgomery the judge tells Clay, indirectly, that true salvation must come from the deed and not the word: “‘The greatest myth of all times is the Bible’s Tower of Babel. Communication is a snare and delusion. The failure of words is indeed mankind’s eternal curse’” (29).
But it is much later in the novel, in an obvious passage of hope for the future, tinged with the poet’s hope for the redemption and rebirth suggested by spring, that the judge speaks most eloquently, not only to Clay, but also to the reader. Shortly after Bea’s departure, an unexpected encounter with Judge Montgomery points Clay to the road he must take to achieve total completeness and redemption; it is election day in Crowtown, and the judge knows that he is on the way to being voted out of office, for he has not succumbed to the guiles of the political machine that controls the county. But even the defeated judge has a vision and hope for the Clays of the world:
“Winter’s the best time in our mountains. All the wounds and scars are bandaged. I mourn for the mining of this people and this land. Each year I give up hope, but then the good snows come, and the land is cleansed and sanctified. In the spring the earth will again try to bring forth fruit. Mostly it will be thistle and briar, but this earth will strive and perhaps, perhaps. …
“The wonder is they come back, the land and the people. In spite of abominations they do. Out of barrenness to budding, from budding to flower, and from flower to seed and the dropping of leaves to cover the next growth.
“… What I’m trying to say is the earth is very forgiving. I believe it is attempting to teach us, to reveal a pattern and show us the way. …
“They claim there are no more frontiers in this country, this nation. I disagree. Morality’s a new frontier. In my opinion it’s our newest, or at least it’s the oldest which has been forgotten and must be rediscovered. …
… “I shall attempt to simplify for you. … Sowing and reaping: those three words contain the wisdom of the ages. Everything is sowing and reaping.”
Transformed by Judge Montgomery’s words, Clay resolves to free Vestil from his role as a male prostitute working on the third floor of the town’s only hotel. Posing as a client in need of Vestil’s services, Clay is ushered into the room by the unsuspecting “protector” of the house, Coon. From the moment Hoffman places Clay in room thirty-three, he increasingly identifies Clay with the Christ figure, one prepared to lay down his life for his fellow man, even for seemingly the least worthy of the lot. When Clay succeeds in giving Vestil a considerable sum of money to enable him to leave Crowtown and begin a new life somewhere else, Coon is ordered by the madame of the house to mutilate Clay:
“Do it!” she screamed.
“Going to!” Coon said. …
Coon rode him. A drop of powdery sweat fell from his chin onto Claytor’s face. Claytor wept, whimpered, and retched. … Yet there was something else. …
The difference was that under all the riot of fear was a quietness, among all the terror a sureness, which he could only identify as something forming very much like courage. It found its way into his face, and he smiled—the bravest act of his life. …
A calmness and serenity flowed into him. He could have been dozing in the warmth of the summer sun.
Clay is then allowed to leave the hotel, to bear perpetually the scars of his Calvary. And Hoffman reminds the reader of Christ’s ascent as Clay makes his slow, painful journey to his home in the mountains:
Snow fell faster. … Claytor swayed past mounds which were again clean. … A tipple appeared virginal. He left drops of blood in the snow. Wind blew flakes that like wafers settled on cinders. …
His blood sprinkled snow, the stains sinking like red seeds. …
Slowly he gathered his body to rise. He would climb to the house, clean himself, and meet them standing.
Perhaps the clearest evidence of Hoffman’s intention in The Land That Drank the Rain can be found in the book’s title, and in a letter Hoffman wrote me in reply to my review of the novel. The source of the title is found in Hebrews 6:1–9: “For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: But that which beareth thorns and briars is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.” The chapter ends recalling God’s promise to Abraham in Hebrews 6:15: “And so after he had patiently endured, he obtained the Promise.”
Clay’s ascent, the seasonal setting of the book from late fall through winter to the promise of spring, and the allusions and parallels already cited combine to show Hoffman’s thematic intention: Redemption and salvation are always possible, but they can come only after expiation, contrition, and sacrifice. Finally, of my review, which had touched upon the “Christian theme of descent and ascension,” Hoffman wrote:
I did break a rule and read the review. I believe you have a fine understanding of what I attempted to do, and I know you would because of your theological background. My great worry is that most sophisticated people these days do not think morally or any other way.7
Godfires, Hoffman’s ninth novel, continues the implicit examination of our degenerative society that started with The Land That Drank the Rain. In Godfires, however, the quest is skillfully hidden with one of the cleverest tales of detective fiction of the twentieth century. The reader is immediately plunged into an entertaining and frequently gripping double whodunit. First, who is the “Master” who has imprisoned and shackled Howell County’s commonwealth attorney, Billy Payne, in a remote cabin deep in the recesses of a swamp and who returns almost daily to teach Billy about God, sin, expiation, grace, and forgiveness? Second, who is the slayer of Vincent Fallon Farr, one of the wealthiest and most influential citizens of Howell County, confidant of legislators and governors, and husband of the beautifully cultured, aristocratic, and striking Rhea Dillon Farr, with whom, incidentally, Billy has been in love all of his life?
For his setting for Godfires Hoffman returns to the land and people he knows so well. Thus the novel, although centered in Tobaccoton, Virginia, ranges from Richmond in the east to Lynchburg in the west, with other action and incidents occurring at nearby rural communities. The first-person point of view allows Hoffman to present the two concurrent plots already mentioned with an economy of language. All but one of the fifteen chapters that comprise the novel’s over four hundred pages begin with an excerpt, usually brief, of the dialogue between Billy and the Master involving the religion lessons with which the Master is indoctrinating Billy.
The novel opens with a scene that can readily be seen in any one of the seemingly endless horror and sci-fi flicks that constitute the “in” movies of the 1980s: Billy Payne, the narrator-protagonist, is lying “belly down, … my chain clanking as I shift to gaze out the crooked doorway of the cabin toward motionless briars, tangled kudzu, and drooping swamp weed blooming yellow. I await the precise tread of the Master” (1). Hoffman then plays with the reader for over two hundred pages, describing “the Master” as an erect military figure who wears a Smith & Wesson.38 police special and a sheath knife “used to skin deer” (2).
There are many characters who play minor roles in Godfires: Florene Epes, Billy’s secretary; Harrison Adams, a former silent business partner of the murdered Farr, who, not long before the discovery of Farr’s body, had fought with him over a business venture gone sour; Doc Robinette, the small-town family physician and county medical examiner; Billy’s father, an alcoholic so bent on reforming Billy that he pours vinegar into Billy’s carefully hidden bourbon; and Sheriff Burton Pickney, one of Hoffman’s finest portraits, a description of whom also conveys Hoffman’s skill in using imagery:
The sheriff sat at his oak desk, a man whose flesh was so loose it seemed the only thing holding him together was his rumpled tan uniform. Unbutton his shirt or drop his pants and he would’ve flowed across the floor like lard melting on a skillet. He moved no more than he had to, and when he had to, it was with a slow, rolling gait, as if he perpetually paced the deck of a pitching ship and needed to compensate for rough weather.
But the most complete and most important character in the novel other than Billy is Rhea, Vin Farr’s widow, a beautiful and complex woman haunted by ancestral pride always present in the massive portrait of her mother that hangs in the living room of the Farr mansion. Rhea tells Billy that after the marriage with Vin had begun to sour: “‘I read a lot, even did a little private drinking, nothing like Vin’s. I’d sit in the quietness of the parlor sipping whiskey and looking at my mother’s portrait, trying to draw courage from her’” (282). Rhea, cursed by the family pride she wears so proudly, laments, “I considered leaving him. I went to a Richmond lawyer, yet couldn’t go through with divorce because my mother would never have. I was a Dillon woman. We won by lasting” (281).
The reader soon discovers that there are reasons for Rhea’s fanaticism, both from the distant past, when as a young girl she discovered an affair between her aristocratic father and one of his black farm-workers, and from the present, her husband’s multiple affairs with local social friends of Rhea as well as with prostitutes from Richmond, including, as Billy later discovers, one special black prostitute named Kitten, who talks only in rhymed couplets and who is well equipped to offer special sexual favors to satisfy the most jaded and degenerate of sexual appetites. But it was Vin himself who, trying to force Rhea to play the same sexual games he played with his black prostitutes in Richmond, slowly but surely began to write his own death ticket.
But the “thrilling” aspect of the novel is merely Hoffman’s framework that allows him to explore the real world of the eighties and nineties, a Gothic inner world of mystery, spiritualism, illicit and kinky sex, alcoholism, and most of all religion, especially hypocritical religion. Billy himself describes Tobaccoton as “… tick-infested, chigger-infested, but most of all … religion-infested. If religion were oak trees, we would’ve been living in a primeval forest instead of a thirsting land where the red soil of fields flowed into the sun’s glaze like rivers of dust” (11).
The murder and its solution are only the background against which Hoffman explores, reveals, and condemns the sick and diseased society of big and small, urban and rural, late-twentieth-century America. As Hoffman skillfully and adroitly plants clues along the way for both Billy Payne and the reader, he is also simultaneously reminding us of the real problems of a materialistic world. By holding a mirror up to Billy and the others through the commentary of minor characters, Hoffman gives us the power that the poet Robert Burns pleaded for: to see ourselves as others see us. Thus we learn that Vincent Farr, as rich as he already was, still wanted more, and would run over whatever or whoever got in his way. Billy finds out this side of Vin when he talks with Harrison Adams, Vin’s former business partner:
“… Vin played it day by day. As long as things were going right, he was a perfect partner and never showed his tough side. It’s just when a dollar bill’s lying on the ground and you’re standing between him and it that he gets mean—or got mean.”
“I don’t know what happens to people,” Harrison said and adjusted his cap. … “I been studying them a long time, and just when I think I’m beginning to understand something about human beings they change on me.”
Billy doesn’t escape another disease of a sick society: a blindness to the worth of other people who just happen to be different, whether they are from “the other side of the tracks,” are less fortunate, or are simply black. As Leona Poindexter and Billy’s own faithful and loyal housekeeper, Aunt Lettie, speak to him about his ignoring of blacks in general, Billy and the reader realize that he is as guilty of a lack of compassion and understanding as Mildred Douglas is contemptuous of Yank in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. Billy has gone to Richmond to see if the daughter of Ben, Rhea’s black gardener who has not been seen since Vin’s death, knows where her father is hiding. After Leona tells Billy that her father is not hiding, but has come to Richmond to visit her, she takes offense at Billy’s statement that he has always liked Ben:
“Known him most your life?” she asked. “Been intimately associated with him? You ever sat down beside him to break bread, offered him a cigarette, sent him a Christmas card?”
“No, but I have a genuinely good feeling for Ben and believed it to be reciprocated.”
“Sure, Daddy knows how to do up white folks. He takes off his hat and bows. They think what a cute little darky he is. I tell you something. My father reads Plato. He’s read the complete works of Plato. How many people in Howell County ever heard of Plato? They’s think you mean Mickey Mouse’s dog.”
Godfires, then, continues the scrutiny of a society and a world that Hoffman began to explore in earnest with The Land That Drank the Rain. Some of the same themes from that work are carried into Godfires—private sin, jaded sex, bonded prostitution—but others, equally damning to the individual as well as to the society to which he belongs, are added, notably the frenzied twentieth-century pursuit of money and of power and influence that follow, the dangers of hypocritical and obsessive religion, and prejudice toward other fellow humans, either of a different lifestyle such as that of the hippies encountered or of another race, whether consciously or unconsciously ridiculed or ignored.
In an accompanying essay in this collection, Jeanne Nostrandt discusses with considerable skill Hoffman’s tenth novel, Furors Die. The casual reader of this novel is unaware of a link between its themes and its dedication, but to close friends of Bill Hoffman it will come as no surprise that the novel is dedicated to Hoffman’s former minister and to his wife. In his writing, Hoffman has always been interested in questions of a moral, theological, or philosophical nature: One recalls immediately Tod Young of Yellow Leaf, Jackson LeJohn of A Walk to the River, Claytor Carson of The Land That Drank the Rain, and Billy Payne of Godfires. But another reason for such a dedication—apart from a firm and long-lasting friendship—is that Furors Die can be read as a parable on the seven deadly sins, with special emphasis on pride, avarice, and lust.
The story is essentially a rich and detailed account of the growing up and coming of age of its two main characters, Wylie Duval and Amos “Pinky” Cody. Wylie has it all, and at an early age: new cars, easy girls, and a free-swinging country club lifestyle. Pinky, on the other hand, is overly influenced by a frenzied and aggressive mother, a member of a Pentecostal religious sect; Pinky outwardly chastises and condemns everything that Wylie represents, yet he inwardly envies Wylie’s youthful boozing and sexual liberty. Without contriving incidents or encounters, Hoffman skillfully weaves a plot that keeps the two lives constantly in focus, so that the reader discovers the gradual weighing and shifting of values on the part of Pinky, and Wylie’s attempts to dissociate himself from Pinky.
Because Pinky worked through high school as an office boy for Wylie’s highly successful father, and especially because Pinky had talked a frustrated and slightly deranged tenant out of holding Wylie’s father as a hostage, Mr. Duval sends Pinky to Wylie’s prep school, White Oak, in Virginia, expecting and demanding that Wylie “look after Pinky.” Although Wylie bitterly resents the situation, to retain his father’s goodwill and financial support he reluctantly agrees to his father’s request, thus bringing the two boys into a relationship that allows the seed of future discord to take deep root.
There are no heroes in this novel, at least not in the contemporary sense of the term. Neither Wylie nor Pinky can really understand each other, and neither makes any solid attempt to try. For example, on the occasion of the death of Pinky’s father, an event that went unnoticed by Wylie for several months, Wylie, following a chance encounter with Pinky, tells him “‘I’m so damn sorry,’” to which Pinky, summing up Wylie’s attitude and concern in a single striking sentence, replies, “‘Not really. You want to be because that’s the correct attitude, but you never knew my father and never cared to. … He didn’t have the grace and style you find as necessary as air … in all the years since White Oak, you’ve never once asked about him—whether he was dead or alive’” (208).
And yet Wylie, at least on the surface and to those who know him, is not an evil person. In the best tradition of the so-called southern gentleman he is a well-mannered, sociable, highly successful businessman, regular in his attendance at church, a better-than-average tennis player, a generous husband. But like too many in a materialistic, yuppie society, Wylie lacks a proper sense of values, of morals. As one of his sexual conquests, Trish, tells him, “‘We’re not moral people. … [I]t’s not your moral code that’s hurt, it’s your pride’” (154). Pride, covetousness, anger, and lust are omnipresent in this novel, with almost every character, major and minor, afflicted with each vice to varying degrees. Ultimately, however, Furors Die is not only a parable on the seven deadly sins; it is also, and perhaps primarily, a satire on a greedy, materialistic, mechanistic, and sick society—a society, Hoffman warns, as doomed as the grand schemes and airy monuments built by both the Wylies and the Pinkys of our world.
What, then, is the place of William Hoffman in contemporary American literature, and especially in southern literature? One can begin by claiming for him a range and a richness that few of his contemporaries possess: Whether Hoffman is writing of the horrors of World War II or of the permanent scars inflicted by war both on its participants as well as on those who stand and wait, his words and images touch our raw nerves and make us blink, wince, or cry. But, as with all gifted and talented writers, the themes of Hoffman’s fiction are what will endure. His subjects, in the course of a novel, become themes: honor, courage, love, self-sacrifice, war, the struggle to survive, and the southern agrarian theme of the rape of the land. Taken together, these eleven novels comprise one writer’s spiritual quest throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
Mary H. Davis, “Introduction to the Novels of William Hoffman,” master’s thesis, Longwood College, Farmville, Va., 1980.
William Hoffman, conversation with the author, July 22, 1990, Charlotte Court House, Va.
Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1946), 200.
William L. Frank Jr., “William Hoffman’s The Dark Mountains,” unpublished paper, 1983.
Hoffman, conversation with author; Davis, “Introduction to the Novels.”
1 Kings 21:19–20.
William Hoffman, letter to author, July 12, 1982.
SOURCE: “The American Adam in the Southern Wasteland: William Hoffman's Follow Me Home and the Ethics of Redemption,” in The Fictional World of William Hoffman, edited by William L. Frank, University of Missouri Press, 2000, pp. 24-45.
[In the following essay, Van Ness examines the theme of spiritual redemption in the short stories of Follow Me Home. Van Ness identifies Hoffman's protagonists as American incarnations of the biblical Adam, situated in a fallen “southern wasteland.” As such, Hoffman's protagonists are viewed as independent, self-reliant individuals whose rediscovery of old-fashioned morality and the virtues of the heart lead to renewal and “a spiritual wholeness.”]
William Hoffman’s third collection of short stories, Follow Me Home, constitutes a continuation of his earlier volumes, Virginia Reels and By Land, by Sea. Hoffman’s protagonists have almost always been outsiders, men and women who reject the traditional values sanctioned by society; they keep their own counsel and act on their own beliefs. This intense individualism, at times solipsistic, often warps their moral consciousness, and they become grotesques, having so accepted their personal values or so distorted commonly held ethical standards that, in their envy or resentment, they resemble the biblical figure of Cain, not so much losing their innocence as never seeming to have possessed it. Their self-serving and self-justified actions condemn them, as it were, to a moral wasteland they themselves have created, a world distinctly southern in geography, in which personal gratification in what they do becomes synonymous with personal redemption.
This attitude is particularly true in Virginia Reels, a darkly pessimistic collection of stories where Hoffman’s strict Presbyterian upbringing reveals itself through its Calvinist depiction of good and evil. Mr. Gormer, for example, the narrator in “The Spirit in Me,” possesses fundamentalist religious beliefs, including the handling of poisonous snakes, that set him apart from the rest in his rural community in the Virginia mountains. His inability to resolve his inner conflicts and his literal adherence to biblical injunction result in his loosing his “children” (5) on an amorous young couple he has locked in a boathouse. His spiritual corruption is nowhere better stated than in Hoffman’s final sentence, where Gormer effectively damns himself through his smug self-righteousness and his lack of human compassion: “As I walk toward the forest I hear her gasp. I do not turn even at the first scream” (14). Similarly, in “A Darkness on the Mountain,” Roy’s courtship of Anna Mae and his dislike of Buster, a “heller” (86), result in his tying his rival deep within a mine shaft. Like Gormer, he walks away, and though he believes Buster lies “in a darkness that never lifted” (94), he is blind to the fact that he himself walks in an ethical darkness deeper than that of any mountain.
Hoffman’s presentation of human nature becomes less severe in his next collection, By Land, by Sea, though his characters continue to act according to and on behalf of their own self-interests. Published a decade after Virginia Reels, these stories still depict outsiders motivated either by a corrupt (and corrupting) spiritual certainty or by their physical needs. In “Lover,” for example, Dave lives a regimented and sterile life that masks his desperate efforts to deny age. A successful business manufacturer whose wife, Helen, has died some seven years earlier, Dave first shadows and then rapes a young woman, needing her youthfulness to affirm his own vitality. “I must live it one last time,” he declares, “the youth and Helen, the hope, the promise of glory, the soaring” (81). As he waits for the police to arrive in the isolation of his materially comfortable but emotionally perverted home, he recognizes his own differences from others: “They will come for me, yet no matter how I explain, they’ll never believe what I have done is out of love” (82). Such a recognition sets him apart from Gormer and Roy, who have no real sense of themselves and who never attempt any psychological or sociological analysis. Yet in his surrender to personal need, an ethic of selfishness, Dave belongs with the grotesques who people Virginia Reels.
However, By Land, by Sea also depicts another sort of figure, also an outsider but not a spiritual grotesque. While he remains solitary, often a refugee from society who now lives by choice in self-imposed exile from it, his independence is a source of strength. Earlier characters also possessed this freedom, but it acted upon them, as it were, either to heighten their need for retribution or justice or to deepen their sense of alienation, thereby causing them to further their personal values by using others. Hoffman’s new protagonist still possesses the self-reliance that enables him to endure; however, his selflessness, or what might simply be labeled Christian charity, assures that he will persevere. In By Land, by Sea, for example, Dave’s selfishness in “Lover” is countered by Peck’s effort in “Altarpiece” to extend love to one more isolated than he; rather than taking, he offers. Peck’s wife, like Dave’s, is dead. However, instead of remaining among the memories as Dave does (even using his wife’s clothing as an excuse to bring the woman he rapes into the stately house), Peck leaves, selling his Cumberland farm, giving much of his material possessions to his children, and contracting with an auctioneer to dispose of the remainder (his wife’s clothes go to Goodwill). Haunted by the words in his wedding vows, “Whom God has joined together, let no man rend asunder,” he flees to his small and economical Chesapeake cottage, though later, as the memories flood back and leave him “run over and bleeding” (130), he drives three hours one night to lie across his wife’s grave. His values and attitudes require him to reach out to Jenny, a bereft woman whose own sorrows exceed his: “So much trouble, so much misery for Jenny,” he thinks, “those husbands, a wayward daughter, the frantic attempts to hold things together by selling cosmetics. He pictured her brave smile beneath those desperate eyes” (136). When his shyness and formality cause him to jerk free as she tries to kiss him, he is genuinely shocked to see the total despair into which she falls after she leaves him: “He’d never witnessed such sorrow, not even in himself—a pain that wrenched and shrank her body. She flinched as if being flogged. Her mouth’s wail was soundless through the beaded window. Her suffering, he believed, came not from him alone. Rather, his rejection of her on the porch had been but the last step down a pitiless slope to a final, all-conquering despair” (142). This revelation transforms Peck, and as he now hears the words of a new vow—“Whom grief has joined … Whom grief has joined” (143)—he reaches out to her, literally and figuratively, as the story concludes, finally understanding that love redeems.
Such compassionate figures dominate Follow Me Home—women and men who know themselves and who possess in their hearts a treasure of values that separates them from society on the one hand but which provides them a spiritual richness on the other hand. It is not that these figures remain ignorant of the fallen world around them, failing to see the invasive and debilitating morality against which they have set themselves. Rather, it is as if the values by which they live and to which they have committed their lives serve to free them from the attitudes and actions that derive from modern life, where money and materialism have replaced manners and corrupted the will to excellence. In their innocence the characters consequently resemble Adam, not Cain, in the world as it were but not of it, who find or who have already found an inner paradise. In their ethic of self-reliance and adherence to old-fashioned values that ironically have become new in the southern wasteland where they live, Hoffman’s protagonists find redemption, a spiritual wholeness. Like Adam, each character in Follow Me Home is alone, an individual who stands—and acts—in this fallen world, depicting the traits or characteristics identified by R. W. B. Lewis in The American Adam: “an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources. … His moral position [is] prior to experience, and in his very newness he [is] fundamentally innocent.”1 The difference, however, is that the moral position of Hoffman’s protagonists is after or beyond experience, what William Blake, in his understanding of man’s development, described as a higher innocence whose achievement is only possible after a fall into experience, a movement beyond childhood naïveté into an innocence made possible by but which nevertheless transcends experience. Thus, having portrayed in earlier stories the wasteland into which modern southerners have fallen—not so much the Fugitive sense of an Eden paved over by business and industry as Milton’s spiritual depiction of Paradise lost—it is as if Hoffman now offers to show the way back: Paradise regained. The collection’s imperative, to follow me home, connotes as much, and what Hoffman clearly and quietly reveals in story after story is that home is where the heart lies. Redemption is there, the end of exile, peace. Only in “Night Sport,” the earliest written of the stories, does Hoffman create a figure who again resembles Cain, a character motivated, like Gormer, Roy, and Dave, by selfishness.
Hoffman’s fictional development from characters whose lives reflect a southern wasteland to those whose ethics redeem Jericho has biographical origins. Like R. W. B. Lewis, who as a major in the army surveyed the distant shores of the United States from the destruction of postwar Europe, detecting an American character type, Adam in a New World, Hoffman similarly discerned differences in the two cultures. Having participated in the invasion of Europe three days after Normandy, he witnessed the brutality and bloodshed as part of the Ninety-first Evacuation Hospital. Recently he recalled his impressions of the fighting, characterizing his mental understanding then as “a state of mind when everything was seen as destructible. Nothing stood firmly. Everything in life could equally vanish to no purpose,” adding, “I did recognize that theirs was a culture different, much different, from ours, especially in art.” Discharged in December 1945, Hoffman lacked any sense of self-value, feeling only the need to survive and often aroused to a fanatical response by even the slightest cause. Later, he declares, when he revisited Europe in 1949, courage and self-identity arrived, and he recognized that “the most impressive monuments we have are words.”2 Just as the juxtaposition of America and the Old World enabled Lewis to glean a distinctive personality in this country’s literature, so too did this counterpoint offer Hoffman a sense of character understanding, not simply with respect to his own fictional protagonists but with himself as well.
What Hoffman insists upon in Follow Me Home is acceptance of what one may only call spirituality, a code of conduct or weltanschauung centered not on religion so much as on the realization that in the modern world all are wounded, lost, vulnerable. Consequently, what is required are the old-fashioned virtues of love, compassion, piety, humility, selflessness, and self-sacrifice. Through the thoughts, characteristics, and actions of the figure that Henry James labeled the center of revelation, Hoffman himself offers to show the reader in his eleven stories how to return home, echoing the words of the narrator in Robert Frost’s poem “Directive”:
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself By now, pull in your ladder road behind you And put up CLOSED to all but me. Then make yourself at home. … . …. …. … Here are your waters and your watering place. Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.(3)
The journey involves women and men freed from the past (emancipated is Lewis’s term) whose independence and self-reliance set them apart from the society around them and whose innocence, while not prior to experience (in a fallen world, that is not possible), derives from the inner realm of the heart. They often become childlike, with a simplicity or perhaps clarity of mind and thought that involves a “newness” of self.
Generally speaking, the Hoffman hero is representative of American diversity. Of the eleven stories in Follow Me Home, four feature women, one of whom is African American, and while the monied aristocracy perhaps most evidences itself, the lower and middle classes also have their protagonists. Gender and economic status, in other words, have nothing to do in Hoffman’s vision with finding the way home from the wasteland. Indeed, business acumen and wealth often hinder the journey toward wholeness, and “feminine” sensitivity and common sense are often prerequisites. The collection’s balanced perspective speaks to spiritual inclusiveness, not political correctness, the idea that whatever the journey’s path, it begins and ends with the inner self rather than outward circumstance.
The American Adam qualities of the Hoffman hero are nowhere more apparent than in Lizzie, in “Dancer,” and Rachel, in “The Secret Garden.”4 Both women have figuratively left an old world whose attitudes and standards they believe inappropriate or insufficient in order to live among new values by which they define themselves. It is not that they follow Frost’s less-traveled path; instead, they pursue a geography completely of their own making. Lizzie, for example, lives by herself in a small farmhouse that has been the “family place” (1) for five generations. She keeps its unused rooms neat and sequesters herself in the kitchen on winter days when the Virginia sun offers little warmth. Self-sufficient, she stubbornly clings to her independence, unwilling to accept visits from the Methodist preacher or assistance from her sister Mary Belle and brother-in-law Chester. Lizzie occasionally hears music, a fox-trot or waltz whose sounds reach her in spite of or through the wind, and when they do, she imaginatively dances with her arms around Oliver, her dead husband, a city-bred man who took to farming. Though he could not plow a straight furrow, he “dance[d] like a god … [and] knew how to make a lady feel she floated on air” (12). When Mary Belle discovers Lizzie dancing in her long johns, sweat shirt, and slippers during a snow-storm, she brings her to Richmond, believing that the comfort her wealth assures will be healthy for her. In such seeming opulence, however, Lizzie withers; she is “accustomed to space and air” (8). The guest rooms, painted “piggy pink” with pictures of “southern belles and hat doffing cavaliers” (8); the master bedroom, “baby blue with white flounces everywhere” (8); and the dining room, with its long table and Williamsburg chandelier, all suffocate her independence and constitute a wasteland of richness that oppresses her inner world, where music swells. “No use attempting to explain how the music came and went,” she thinks, “the sound nothing like violins or saxophones but chiefly a feeling, if you could mix into melody the smell of hay curing, the whisper of the river dragging under willow branches, the taste of a freshly picked tomato still warm from the sun, the sense of a good horse under you, the sight of a spiraling hawk in a fresh summer sky, the touch of a loving man” (11). Only in this element does Lizzie thrive.
The deaths of her husband and son years ago and the inability of her sister to offer her a better life now leave Lizzie severed from all family “inheritance.” In her simplicity, Lizzie finds contentment, and her independence and self-reliance sharpen her desire to confront life with only her own resources. She desires no assistance, only freedom, in whose music she touches life more closely than her sister and brother-in-law, who “knew money, scented it like a bird dog winding” (8). However, her self-sufficiency demands she escape the imposed internment. Two attempts fail, but when Lizzie one day recognizes the full presence of spring and hears “a sea of music around her” (18), she follows it, climbing a ladder left by the painters up to the roof. Her innocence renders her beyond experience, a woman whose childlike delight in the world is unsullied and complete: “As she looked up into the limbs of a tulip poplar, she held out a palm to catch the slowly spiraling pollen” (18). When Lizzie, fearing that her sister will commit her to a mental institution, follows the music onto the roof, the reader understands that, in the completeness of her imaginative world, Lizzie achieves a spirituality that derives not from what was but from what is, a wholeness that skeptics might label dangerous and delusional but which Hoffman portrays as truly “home,” a place in whose heights Lizzie might breathe “fragrances filtered through a green veil of trees” and where she feels “weightless” (19). That home, richer and newer than any Mary Belle and Chester know, opens to her like spring, as fresh and complete as Eden.
For Rachel, too, in “The Secret Garden,” home becomes not a physical location but a spiritual state of mind. As with Lizzie, past events have conditioned the present, hastening her into a new geography whose inner landscape of moods reveals itself when she plays the piano. “I make a garden of quarter notes,” she thinks, “I climb music as if it is a rose trellis reaching the sky” (180). Rachel has long ago abandoned the country of conventional morality, whose rigid standards mandate sexual propriety, the meaning of marriage, and the nature of personal giving. With her childish belief in love, she offers herself to men, a woman possessing “a heart too soon made glad” (188), though she realizes that they do not comprehend “the nature and completeness of my gift to them” (191). Certainly her husband has not understood what he believes to be her wantonness, her continual sexual offers to other men, and her inability to perceive the failure of their marriage. To his abiding concern about her affairs, she simply responds, “‘We are all flowers, and they are beautiful children. … Who serves best, the bloom or the bee?’” (188). Indeed, her innocence most reflects itself in Rachel’s identification with flowers. “I am a tea rose,” she declares, “a purple iris, and often a long-stem tiger lily” (191). She knows, like an intuitive child, that “there are always gardens. … Women giv[ing] off nectar to the bees. It is so obviously a part of nature’s plan you wonder why everyone doesn’t see we are all gardens. I am the mimosa, and hummingbirds dart to me” (181). Rachel’s romanticism lies not in her search for the spiritual in nature but rather in her belief that she herself is such an intimate part of the natural world. Despite the social, familial, and medical forces arrayed against her, all intent on altering who she is and how she acts, Rachel recognizes what they do not. “I have been chiefly a flower,” she asserts. “It is the great truth I’ve perceived” (191).
Around the garden of herself lies a morass of southern manners and southern attitudes that admonish, scold, coerce, and guard. Her mother and children constantly observe her, returning behind Rachel’s back the gifts she buys for others, and the doctors seek to curb or inhibit her behavior. Partly their actions derive from the perception of Rachel’s emotional vulnerability and her physical unsteadiness, the “faint blue bruises on the elbows and forearms she used as fenders” (176), but they are also conscious of local gossip, the need to be discreet in a world whose wants and attitudes wither her bloom. Rachel senses their coldness, thinking, “Words are often wind. Pleas and threats. The first rule is never trust any wind. Voices speak of God” (181–82). Her innocence, which is beyond morality, lies in her motivation, her purity of thought, and her need for “my perfect little garden.” That garden, with its biblical overtones of Eden, lies within herself, a mindscape where “wind cannot enter, my private place. Only a riot of blooms, the bees, the music” (182). Her independent behavior as well as her willingness to stand alone and to depend upon her own instincts and abilities sets her apart from the community. In the pristine climate of her private world, Rachel remains pure. Leaving family behind, she is undefiled by their inherited morality. Though “The Secret Garden” concludes with the family driving her north to a mental institution in Baltimore, Rachel remains undeterred, seeing upon her arrival not the “partially dark Victorian main building” but the flowers growing in front. In a story Hoffman structures by alternating perspectives, Rachel has the last word, “Coralbells” (193), she excitedly says, identifying the flowers, and in the play on words with “choral bells,” Hoffman suggests her inner spirituality.
Hoffman balances Lizzie’s and Rachel’s monied backgrounds with his presentation of Celeste, the black cook of Miss Alice Louella in “Coals,” and the unnamed narrator in “Boy Up a Tree,” the sixteen-year-old daughter of a wealthy Tidewater aristocrat who learns more from the values of L. C. Spraggs, the lower-class son of a miner, than she does from the manners of her father. The two stories broaden Hoffman’s depiction of the American Adam by effectively negating economic as well as gender qualifications while focusing on the character’s emancipation from family, her self-reliance, and her innocence.
Celeste’s independence lies in her determination to keep her word. As cook and caretaker of Miss Alice Louella, Celeste long ago promised the former’s now-deceased husband that she would look after her. “‘I give him my word’” (42), she asserts, and that frequently repeated declaration as well as her knowledge of human nature leads her not only to ignore the increasing requests of her dependent for “my tonic,” the kind that made “birds fall out of trees” (42), but also to ban Raincoat, the man who surreptitiously brings the alcohol, from making his deliveries. Celeste, moreover, refuses to submit to the verbal harassment that Miss Alice Louella, whose late husband’s wealth admitted him to the governor’s patronage, is accustomed to using with her black help. When she admonishes Celeste, “‘You continually try my patience,’” for example, the latter’s response is direct and immediate: “‘What patience?’” (43). Despite being first reprimanded and then released, Celeste remains untouched by monetary considerations, by the accepted role assigned to domestic help, and by her own family considerations. She has buried two of her previous husbands while refusing to live in the past.
Adherence to her verbal promise has only accentuated her self-reliance. Simply speaking, she does for herself, confronting whatever situation she meets with determination and her own abilities. That innate trust in who she is may be due partly to the physical disability of her present husband but more particularly to a fundamental faith in her beliefs. She is both practical and perceptive, able on the one hand to forgo her required uniform because her own dresses are cooler and on the other hand to negotiate a new business arrangement that pays her if Miss Alice Louella fires her again. Indeed, this new arrangement and the financial security it assures result in Celeste’s assuming a moral position that elevates her from servant to protector. When Miss Alice Louella, angry and frustrated because Celeste requires her to leave her self-enforced isolation and return to the living, declares, “‘You hate me, don’t you?’” Celeste responds simply, “‘I don’t hate nobody. … Hate is sin’” (52). Celeste’s care and concern are nothing less than love, a selfless expression of compassion. “‘I nice not for what you has been but what you was and can be’” (54), she tells Miss Alice Louella; her love, which transcends economic considerations, not only causes her ward to rediscover a sense of vitality and purpose but also transforms Celeste into an individual whose spiritual innocence lies beyond the experiences that would otherwise cause bitterness and even hate. She remains morally pure, having long ago discovered and chartered a geography of the heart.
The unnamed narrator in “Boy Up a Tree” also learns from another individual, a teenaged boy from Cinder Hollow, where the inhabitants are “ridge-running hillbillies, mostly unschooled people who’d drifted down from the high country to find work in the mines” (81). However unlike “Coals,” “Boy Up a Tree” centers less on how the narrator affects another as on how this outsider influences the main character, the young daughter of a Tidewater aristocrat who, in effect, reacts emotionally, physically, and psychologically to the other’s actions and attitudes. Her decision to go out with L. C. Spraggs runs against the aristocratic traditions in which her parents have been raised and to which her father particularly adheres. “Gratitude has limits,” he admonishes his daughter. “‘You have to be kind, but don’t encourage relationships’” (87). His daughter, however, is less concerned with distinctions of class and ancestry than with what might simply be called manners, the fact that this poor, uneducated admirer so persistently places her before himself. She accepts a date with L. C. but later, shortly before she attends boarding school, he distances himself from her out of shame. Only then does she recognize how important he is to her sense not only of herself but also of how life should be lived. Despite a parental injunction to “perpetuat[e] a tradition” (96), she follows another path within her heart, one more independent and leading to newer understandings, deeper truths. “Homesick among the blue bloods” (96) of her new school, she figuratively reaches out to him and sees his face, “like looking back,” she thinks, “into a dark tunnel you’re leaving and know you’ll never return to” (97). Though she comprehends they will no longer meet, her willingness to abandon family, including the class traditions to which it subscribes, as well as her stand against economic prejudice, creates in her a simple, moral goodness or purity of heart that effectively renders her, in its newness, innocent, a fact Hoffman reinforces when the reader learns at the end of the story that she lives in Cinderella, West Virginia.
Against this array of female protagonists, Hoffman establishes an equally diverse group of male characters who also exhibit the characteristics of the American Adam. Amos, in “Sweet Armageddon,” and Harmon, in “Abide with Me,” not only represent the lower classes but also continue Hoffman’s interest in depicting figures whose obsessive religious beliefs alienate them from the larger community. Amos, for example, lives with his wife, Martha, in a dilapidated neighborhood threatened by crime. His fundamentalist attitudes have effectively precluded him from obtaining his own ministry. Having earlier in his life deliberately chosen not to pursue a path promising wealth and material possessions, Amos recognizes that he and his wife have “[a]ll their lives together … been sojourners” (57). Living in a rented residence whose broken furniture and poor heating seem to mock his years of devoted service, he now works for the reward of Christ’s Second Coming, “a celestial conflagration”: “He pictured the cataclysm, the rolling thunder and horrible lightning streaking down black corridors of the earth, the dazzling rapture in the heavens” (59). Ignored by those with money, the “world’s victors” (74), as well as by the church, which believes he carries “spiritual contagion” (75), Amos principally survives on his small ministerial retirement check, abandoned by “a sick, facile society that had forgotten its roots” (75). Though at times resentful, he is never jealous. His reward, he believes, is not of this world but a spiritual home whose richness surpasses any earthly feast.
Amos is literally “bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race.” He and Martha never mention family, to whom they would not turn for financial assistance should relatives offer. Amos has long ago left behind those whose wealth blinds them to “the sacred inviolability of Scripture” (75). Their independence purifies his faith. His part-time work as an orderly in a nursing home and her job as a clerk in a florist shop enable him to persevere, propelled by his beliefs and the knowledge that “at last God collects His loving family” (78). Certainly, Amos believes himself morally superior, especially when he unexpectedly breakfasts with an old college friend, a banker whose money and three marriages mock Amos’s own faith. Indeed, the simplicity by which Amos lives, his abiding love of Martha that acutely acknowledges what she has surrendered for him, and his innate trust in God’s Word give Amos an innocence that does not so much involve his ignorance of the world’s evil (indeed, he is very conscious of man’s wantonness) as it does an inner purity and childlike belief in his Father. When he wakes the following morning to “a crimson glow” through the nailed window, he thinks again of Armageddon. Wondering if he hears a trumpet, he holds Martha’s hand and lifts his other “as if offering her and himself skyward on his own agitated palm” (78). The act is instinctive, and Hoffman clearly suggests that their rich faith has brought them to an inner home as abundant in religious provision as Eden was in bodily sustenance.
That same faith evidences itself in “Abide with Me,” when, during a serious operation, Harmon sees Christ in a vision. As he “teeter[s] over the black pit” and stares at “the foul dog of death,” “Him” appears, and Harmon finds himself “floating to the light” (100). Subsequently, he fulfills a promise made at that time, creating a huge, stone face of Jesus on a mountaintop and then lighting it so that “He seemed suspended in the high darkness” (103). Like Celeste in “Coals,” he believes it necessary to keep his word. “I always been proud of doing that” (103), he thinks. Though not as poor as Amos, Harmon and his wife, Glenna Anne, live frugally, and he remains just as determined to adhere to his beliefs, particularly when the hewn image increasingly becomes a source of social contention and ridicule. Against a minister who suggests the face “don’t look like Our Lord and Savior” (104) and an unidentified telephone voice who warns, “‘Don’t want no blue-eyed Eye-talians ’round here’” (105), Harmon remains resolute, insisting that the image is what he saw. “‘I made a real promise’” (104), he states, believing in his independence and innocence that he will overcome the increasing community distress. He pays the cost of a building permit and turns away the ministerial delegation that arrives at his house seeking to convince him to take the statue down, declaring, “‘I don’t mean disrespect, but I been brought up to keep my word. I couldn’t sleep nights if I didn’t’” (108). Harmon even incurs the additional cost of fencing off the image, posting a No Trespassing sign, and paying for a newspaper advertisement. When his wife asserts, “‘It’s not worth it,’” he responds simply, “‘Never been a question of worth but of word’” (112). Complaints that the face is anti-Semitic and that it affronts feminist groups do not deter him, nor does he yield when offered fifteen hundred dollars by a private collector of folk art. Yet when local rowdies deface “Him” and use the area to drink, Harmon finally responds. He drives them off and then, almost apologetically, “cover[s] his eyes and bow[s] his head” (116), blasting the base of the image with dynamite he has stolen and burying the face in one of his wife’s clean sheets. When the police arrive the next morning, he says to the deputy, “‘I always believed it about the most important thing in the world for a man to keep his word’” (116).
Throughout the story, Harmon relies on his clarity of vision and on promises he has made, undeterred even when Glenna Anne expresses reservations that not so much abandon him as leave him free to confront the rigid community with his own abilities. He does so, using resources that effectively stand against southern narrow-mindedness. Only when he recognizes that he has kept his word and that taking the hewn stone down benefits “Him” does Harmon settle the issue by eliminating the cause. He is genuinely ignorant of the prejudice and political correctness that subvert a simple expression of private gratitude and spiritual love. “The first trouble he didn’t suspect was trouble at all” (103), Hoffman writes, and while that lack of suspicion gradually yields to the expectation of problems, Harmon remains morally innocent, conscious of what a promise means, his spiritual position “beyond experience.” As the police car takes him away from Glenna Anne, he never leaves the purer home that lies within his heart.
While Amos and Harmon center themselves with the spiritual, other protagonists live essentially within this world. Stories such as “Tides,” “Points,” and “Business Trip” portray protagonists searching for self who discover a revitalized future as they abandon old beliefs. They enter a new world either deliberately or unexpectedly, facing situations never before confronted and determined to accommodate themselves and persevere. Self-reliant, they are survivors. In “Tides,” for example, Wilford and his son Dave are sailing for the last time before the latter begins a banking career following his college graduation. Dave refers to their Chesapeake Bay trip as “a ritual celebrating the official end of fun in my life” (20). A quiet man, Wilford also hopes to make the cruise a “celebration” (21), during which he might summon words of appreciation. When the boat, appropriately named Wayfarer, is commandeered by a criminal and forced to sail towards Baltimore, Wilford faces a dangerous dilemma, conscious that he must act but also that his own son has “never really been strong” (30). He fears for Dave and recognizes in the reminiscences he allows himself that their past together up until that morning has been safe: “He remembered how the night before he and Dave had lain on the cabin top and identified the Pleiades, Orion, and Andromeda. The sky had seemed benevolent” (31). The outside world, however, almost always forces itself upon Hoffman’s protagonists, threatening to coil its contagion into the Edenic innocence.
As the boat sails to Baltimore, Wilford seems literally to free himself from history, leaving behind in the boat’s wake all sense of security and safety. His past becomes irrelevant, everything dependent on what happens now. What Wilford discovers is not that he does not know how to act but that he is in danger of thinking too much, of “second-guessing himself into immobility” (35). With a silent prayer, “God, let me be brave this once” (37), he propels himself into action, relying on his own instincts when his son distracts their abductor into losing his balance; together they subdue the intruder. Dave loses a tooth in the struggle, but Wilford, temporarily suffering a loss of focused vision from a gunshot, more importantly surrenders his fear that Dave lacks manhood, that he is too soft. Wilford’s decision always to keep the incisor his son has lost symbolically suggests his entrance into a new world, a realm where childhood and manhood are not magically determined by age and where he and Dave now share renewed bonds of trust and respect. Moreover, Wilford, though conscious of the evil that always threatens to intrude, nevertheless maintains a moral position above experience. He gratefully acknowledges his debt to all who have helped his son, including Dave’s girlfriend: “The filling satisfaction to have him as he was now. Bless Margaret too, Wilford thought, and lowered his head to the sand” (22). His reverence is sincere, uncorrupted by selfishness.
Beau in “Points” and the unnamed narrator in “Business Trip” also exhibit this reverence whose nature is essentially religious and whose efficacy owes to the protagonist’s fundamental innocence. Although Hoffman’s southern wasteland is sometimes physical, as a result of industrialism and urban growth, it is more often a spiritual corruption. In this view, moral innocence, while no longer a priori as with Adam, nevertheless represents a general state or condition unsullied by selfishness and ego. Hoffman’s protagonists possess a special attitude, a faith that resides in this world but is not of it. In “Points,” for example, Beau’s belief in foxhunting is as pure and unrelenting as Lizzie’s love of music, Rachel’s identification with flowers, or Amos’s trust in the Second Coming. Prior to the hunt, he repeats a silent prayer: “Let there … be no wind. Let the sun warm the earth, yet not so faintly that the ground thaws only on top and remains frozen inches beneath. Allow footing to be safe. Permit no jump approaches to become icy bogs horses slide and crash into. Let the fox run straight and true” (139). Alive in its traditions, Beau does not so much reside in the past as respond to the present southern emptiness, a recognition of evil and the assumption of a pure ideal. Beau considers it “a statement of where one stood in respect to a world becoming increasingly common, disordered, and hateful” (139), which is to say that he deliberately chooses a moral position that transcends experience while being conscious of it. In so doing, Beau achieves a spiritual purity.
His choice creates divisiveness, and Hoffman clearly indicates that with his present attitudes, Beau has separated himself from his family, a man now “untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances.” He has divorced his first wife, whose infidelity and sarcasm insulted his values, leaving her their house. His second divorce resulted from that wife’s miserliness, her unwillingness to enjoy life by spending money even reasonably (she had requested he not flush the toilet unless absolutely necessary). Beau believes in what he terms “the art of life” (146), the charm and beauty and fullness money permits, a Fitzgerald-like attitude different from that of his son Alfred, who thinks “of money only in terms of dollars, not the grace attached, the concomitant manners” (146). While Beau understands that life expects a response, Alfred has “failed to grasp that living could be a portrait in which a person was both subject and artist” (146). That belief sustains and incites Beau to action during the foxhunt, a chase during which he confronts modern degeneration and diminishment by relying on his abilities and instincts, a knowledge of when to act. When Clive, who overpowers his mounts and who preserves the fox’s brush in Lucite, mounting it as a trophy, determines to keep the lead, Beau challenges him, believing the latter’s egotism an affront to the gentility of his code of conduct. His trust in and use of his horse, Windlord, enable him to overtake Clive, ending the hunt with dignity and ritual, his independence and self-reliance affirmed.
The unnamed narrator in “Business Trip” possesses a code of ethics that echoes Beau’s, and the two stories follow each other in the collection. His fundamental innocence lies partly in the reverence he holds for the game he and Harrison, his business partner, kill during their seasonal hunting trips to the West Virginia cabin they themselves have built. The sparse accommodations and their reverential conduct constitute “our shrine to the ruffed grouse” (157). They impose on themselves a spartan regimen intended to ensure they remain “as unencumbered and untainted as possible by lowland civilization” (157). However, the surprise the narrator receives at the story’s conclusion where, despite his business acumen, he only later realizes that Clarence, an invited guest, has duped him, also suggests his ignorance of social evil and duplicity.
Hoffman’s protagonist most reveals an Adamic self-reliance in his efforts to keep out civilization. Though he is no Thoreau or Natty Bumppo, both because his endeavors are not solitary but in collaboration with those of his partner and because his errands into the wilderness are an escape rather than a mission, he nevertheless determines to create a refuge that constitutes a return to a more basic, even primitive life. In his efforts to clear the land, build a cabin (including a chimney with stones lifted and hauled from a stream), and limit the influence or encroachment of civilization, the protagonist exhibits a self-propelling independence, a willingness to confront nature on its own terms with only his own resources. It is a philosophy toward life that reveals itself in an almost Hemingwayesque code of conduct. The rituals that the narrator follows, particularly when hunting, clearly indicate a ruggedness whose prototype lies in frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. He believes, simply stated, that there is “joy in adversity” and that “in the high country truth prevailed” (158).
Entering that high country, the narrator leaves behind family, specifically his wife, Trixie, and his emancipation is significant in that she epitomizes all that he does not: “She was high style—tall, eyes dark, her stride sure. She carried a gloss. She liked the money” (158). The protagonist also likes success, but the cabin demands a different behavior, an alternative set of sustaining values that are also concrete. Good liquor is to be honored with glasses, for example, and a grouse killed is celebrated by not wasting the meat. When Clarence, who is Trixie’s boss, feigns outdoor ineptness and then reveals his proficient marksmanship, the narrator wonders at his motivation for remaining secretive. His wonder becomes genuine terror when Clarence’s furtive comments imply that Trixie would be better off with him, financially and emotionally, and when Clarence’s gait continually swings his Browning rifle toward him. The possibility that Clarence seeks to kill him, claim an accident, and then have Trixie and the insurance money causes the protagonist to flee. He falls, bloodies his head, and wets his pants, while Clarence laughs and yells to Harrison, “‘Look what I discovered!’” (175). Hoffman never indicates Clarence’s true intent, but the fact that the narrator believes the implied threat real indicates not only his essential innocence despite his worldliness but that the outside world continues to be dangerous, inhabited by individuals whose avarice or egotism creates a wasteland that Hoffman’s Adamic figures must acknowledge or confront.
“Night Sport,” published in the October 1986 issue of the Atlantic, is the oldest story in Follow Me Home, and its darkly pessimistic narrative and black tone link the collection to Hoffman’s earlier stories. Its inclusion in this most recent grouping of stories serves to underscore Hoffman’s development from a perspective almost rigidly Calvinistic in its bleak assessment of human nature to one more balanced and even affirmative in its depiction of human triumphs, the small victories that confront life’s larger diminishments and defeats. It presents a narrator whose Adamic qualities conceal a fundamental delight in imparting pain to others—an ironic reversal of the Christian principle that it is better to give than receive. Chip is a Vietnam veteran who lost his legs in an Asian jungle and who now insists upon his independence by buying a small frame house in “the western boonies of the county” (124). Despite his Electroped and two sets of legs—compliments of the Veterans Administration and the “prosthetic miracles of American ingenuity” (120)—he remains darkly bitter. With senses honed by combat, he feels the slightest vibration inside his “frame typee” (124) and senses the passage of a dung beetle through humid leaf mold, its scratchings as “loud as a scream” (120). He knows a truth, he believes, revealed in “the absolute brilliance which exploded not from outside but within—a white fire so searing and almighty it cauterized him clean” (122). Chip meets all offers of help or sympathy with abrasive sarcasm as intense as any comment by, say, Mr. Gormer in “The Spirit in Me.” Indeed, the knowledge he owns is religious, deep and abiding and irrevocable.
His independence, moreover, involves leaving family behind, “happily bereft” (5) in his freedom not only from the wealth and cultural leisure of his parents, whose aristocratic background irritates him, but also from what he considers their intrusiveness. He has developed, literally and figuratively, “a sense of darkness” (117) into which others cannot see and from which he appears incapable of returning. With his Maytag to assure his cleanliness and a supply of basic provisions, he lives “on automatic alert” (120), psychologically prepared to inflict physical damage on someone—anyone—whom he has tricked into entering his deliberately unlit, seemingly deserted house. Only in their pain and disfigurement can Chip feel alive. Therefore, when Thomas Walker, a boy whose name subconsciously fuels Chip’s hatred, breaks into his house as part of an initiation into a private school club, Chip pretends to let him leave, only to fire both barrels of the rifle into the youth’s calves when he suddenly believes Walker feels sorry for him. He thinks, “they ought to have to learn. They needed to know” (134). As he dials the police to inform them he has shot an intruder, Chip delights in the boy’s new understanding, almost reveling as “the terrible knowledge, the deepest knowledge of all, flowed into those honey-brown eyes” (135). His moral position is never prior to experience but altogether outside it, his spiritual state beyond good and evil and therefore, ironically, beyond all such morality. Chip not only aligns himself with earlier characters like Gormer, Ray, and Dave, but in so doing reminds the reader of a larger truth. In the southern wasteland, whose expanse causes Chip, when he looks through his unwashed windows and sees “dirt either way” (124), the city of Richmond “oozing” west with a corruption that “devoured field and forest” (117), live characters whose Adamic qualities do not promise a paradise revisited, the way home, but a reaffirmation of its loss.
Chip’s inclusion in Follow Me Home underscores another aspect of the American experience delineated by Lewis in his seminal study. Noting that “[t]he dismissal of the past has only been too effective” (9), Lewis issues a warning manifested by American literature. To ignore the past, he argues, is to repeat it. “We regularly return,” Lewis declares, “decade after decade and with the same pain and amazement, to all the old conflicts, programs, and discoveries” (9). In linking Chip to earlier protagonists warped by self-centeredness and a debilitating resentment, Hoffman not only shows where Americans in general and southerners in particular have gone but also how we might once again become lost.
Yet the final statement of Follow Me Home is decidedly optimistic, a declaration that we need not repeat the past in our ignorance or forgetfulness of it but reclaim and replenish what we once were. In “Expiation,” the collection’s last story, Hoffman presents Leland and his wife, Anne, who, after leaving their daughter at an elite, private women’s college for her senior year, travel “roads little changed from the time way back” (194) to visit his southern boyhood heritage. A successful businessman who long ago moved to the North, Leland allows memories of his youth to unfold around him as he drives past fields grown wild with thistle and crumbling buildings covered with creeper, honeysuckle, and poison oak. Anne becomes increasingly unsettled at the decay she observes everywhere; familiar with wealth, she expects a South idealized by her husband’s images of magnolias and dogwoods lining the paved road to a white plantation. “‘So few houses’” (198), she says, and when the asphalt yields to hard-packed red clay, she nervously asks, “‘You’re certain this is the way, you’re not lost?’” (206). Leland, however, understands that he is only now finding himself. Having misled his wife for years about his childhood, allowing her to imagine “visions of past status and grandeur” (209), he courageously confronts who he was—a poor sharecropper’s son who ate possum and groundhog and who was once sent home from school with head lice.
Having lived for years in “Yankeeland” (211), his parents long dead, his past long closed to him, Leland remains “untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race.” As he meets the caretaker of the manor for which his father worked and that a timber company presently owns, he remembers the owner’s second wife, a rich, pretty northerner who took him riding one day, the horse so fast he learned “what flying is like” (207). More importantly, he understands not only the selfless generosity of her gift but also that his denial of the past demands a present atonement. When he sees a poor black “[t]ripping” (212), trying to leave the sun-baked county he himself had abandoned, his vision becomes larger: “he pictured youths leaving, all over the world, hundreds, thousands headed down alien roads to find what waited at the end. He saw himself” (212). Though he knows his wife, shocked and angered at his years of deception and fearful now of all blacks, will “punish him, make him pay” (213), he acts independently, writing the youth, whose fully packed car has broken down, a traveler’s check. As their Cadillac prepares to enter the junction that will lead them back to the interstate and “the other life” (213), Leland once again looks backward, alone in his determination, and notices “wildly flourishing trumpet vines” and “strands of rusted, broken barbed wire” (213), symbols of natural hope and failed human dreams that together represent the continuity of life.
Hoping their marriage will withstand the breach caused by “a good lie well intended” (211), Leland for the first time reconciles himself with his own past and prepares for what will now come, “fundamentally innocent,” as Lewis writes, “in his very newness” (5). The generous and spontaneous actions that move him backward in time while helping another social outcast travel forward become an ethic of personal redemption, enabling him to discover a new geography. It is a land he recognizes as home, that most necessary of places long forgotten in the crass materialism of the southern wasteland, having recovered it by driving over “uneven ground … down the road once forbidden” (209). Although the caretaker tells Leland, “‘All the people who was around here is gone. They all gone’” (210), he is wrong, quite wrong. William Hoffman has never left this realm of the human heart, knowing that the journey there is as much spiritual as physical. His stories are a directive mapping the way home. The reader need only follow.
R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 5.
William Hoffman, telephone interview by author, July 12, 1998.
Selected Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963), 251–53.
Lewis, in The American Adam, argues that in a Bible-reading generation the hero was not surprisingly “most easily identified with Adam before the Fall. Adam was the first, the archetypal, man” (5). His study centers primarily on nineteenth-century American literature, including writers such as Whitman, the elder Henry James, Brown, Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville. His focus consequently offers no opportunity for discussing what I call the American Eve. In discussing Hoffman’s protagonists, I have continued to use Lewis’s original term regardless of the gender of these main figures, believing that their principal characteristics remain the same.
SOURCE: “Bestseller Dreams,” in Washington Post, February 4, 2001, p. W11.
[In the following essay, Span surveys Hoffman's career as a writer who has been critically acclaimed but has yet to achieve the status of bestselling author, focusing upon the promotion of his novel Blood and Guile.]
Bill Hoffman walks into the Volume II Bookstore in Blacksburg, Va., on a Wednesday evening and immediately wishes he could walk right out again.
It's the chairs. Past the poster promising “10٪ Off William Hoffman Books During Event,” past the stacks of his novels Tidewater Blood and the just-published Blood and Guile, in the center of this enormous store that sells Virginia Tech textbooks and sweat shirts and baseball caps, he's spotted nearly 70 metal folding chairs. In a burst of reckless optimism, the store's staff has set up rows and rows for a reading and signing that's supposed to start in a few minutes—and all of them are empty.
“Doesn't look too promising, does it?” Hoffman says glumly to his wife.
He and Sue have driven 150 miles to this first stop on his promotional rounds, and all the way up into the Blue Ridge, Bill wondered whether the long trip could possibly prove worthwhile. Amiable but a little shy, Hoffman doesn't really like publicity appearances anyway. If he were the kind of name-brand author whose novels sold themselves, the superstore shelves emptying as quickly as clerks could stock them while he stayed at home writing in rural Charlotte County, why, that would be fine with him. “I could be a recluse,” he'd said earlier in the day, sounding wistful as he was locking up their old farmhouse. “That'd be ideal.”
But because he is not that kind of author, he knows he has to try to hustle books—especially since a major New York publishing house, HarperCollins, has picked up this novel after long years when only small houses and university presses would publish his work. The HarperCollins people want to make Blood and Guile his “breakout” book, the one that finally delivers a national readership. Hoffman hopes they succeed; he's 75 and has been writing for more than 40 years without reaching that elusive target, and he understands that he may not get many more shots. The contemporary publishing industry has limited patience with so-called midlist authors.
So even though the audience eventually fills only 10 chairs—including Sue and two of her cousins who drove over from Pearisburg—he goes to the lectern and adjusts his reading glasses and begins.
First, he gently corrects the staffer who introduced him as an award-winning writer who's published 10 novels and three collections of short stories. “Twelve novels and four short-story collections,” Hoffman says. His voice is quiet, softened by his decades in Southside Virginia though he grew up in the twangy coal country of West Virginia. He has a long face with eyes that slope a bit sadly, a frosting of white hair. Years of horseback riding, bird-hunting and, more recently, long daily walks have kept him lean in his book-tour uniform: dark green sports jacket, pressed shirt and slacks, Topsiders.
He talks about Charlotte Court House, where he and Sue have lived on a 50-acre horse farm since 1964, a town with fewer than 600 residents, no stoplights, and a weekly newspaper in which “every cow that has a calf makes the headlines.” He tells about the gents who sit and gab under the sycamore tree in what passes for downtown, how they once told some out-of-towners who were seeking “the author William Hoffman” that there wasn't any Arthur Hoffman in these parts.
Then he reads chapters 1 and 2 of Blood and Guile: A snowy West Virginia mountainside where four friends are hunting grouse. Through the hemlocks comes the sound of three shots—an agreed-on SOS. A swift, terrible accident. Or maybe not.
Afterward, Hoffman inscribes his best wishes in seven hardcovers (Sue's cousin buys two) and a paperback; next morning, feeling a touch disheartened, he and Sue head home. There will be more events through the month of November—a hometown signing this weekend, a church fair in Richmond, a book-group discussion in South Carolina—with radio interviews sprinkled in among the road trips. Meanwhile, up in New York, the publicity and marketing people are doing—well, Hoffman doesn't quite know, but he figures they're doing whatever such people do to generate attention and sales. He also knows that breaking out is hard to do.
It's a tense time. “You wonder whether anything is ever going to happen,” he says. “Isn't anyone out there going to read my book? Isn't anyone going to review it? You'd think I'd get used to it, but I never have.”
'Midlist author' is a phrase that Hoffman has never used. But if he'd been spending time in New York (still the Imperial Rome of the publishing world), going to meetings and parties and lunches at Michael's, he would be uncomfortably familiar with the term. He'd know that worry over midlist books and their future has people in the industry variously squawking, lamenting, debating and defending—and disagreeing over whether electronic publishing will help or make things worse. It's not a label that writers welcome, and publishers like it even less. But midlist is what most authors are.
Almost any substantial work of fiction or nonfiction that doesn't become a bestseller qualifies as a midlist book, one that doesn't make the “front” of a publisher's seasonal list of upcoming titles. It probably sells somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 hardcover copies (writers whose sales sink below that may have trouble finding commercial publishers) and a high of 20,000 to 25,000. Beyond the numbers, however, the word “midlist” has acquired a stigma, an unnerving whiff of low sales expectations. “It suggests that it's a B-team book,” says John Sterling, president and publisher of Henry Holt. “A book that doesn't get any real attention from anybody in the publishing house … What are the chances a book of that sort is going to work? Incredibly small. Enter the lottery; you'll have a better chance of succeeding.”
Midlist books get published anyway, by the thousands each year; some are wonderful and some less so. The danger they all face is being ignored in a business increasingly dominated by the Big Book, the Tom Clancy thrillers and Danielle Steel romances that readers line up for. “The ugliest word out of a publisher's mouth,” says literary agent Molly Friedrich, “is small.”
Last spring an uneasy Authors Guild, which had spent more than a year looking into these trends, released its report on midlist publishing. It laboriously toted up the figures for the top fiction and nonfiction titles on the Publishers Weekly annual bestseller list, then showed how those 30 megabooks suck up a growing proportion of sales. In 1986, the bestsellers accounted for about 7 percent of all adult hardcover trade book sales; a decade later they accounted for 13 percent. In 1999, applying the same methodology, the proportion reached nearly 15 percent.
The report blamed this shrinking market share for midlist books largely on the rise of the superstore chains and the accompanying demise of independent bookstores over the past decade. Readers now make about 15 percent of their adult book purchases in independent bookstores, a percentage that has been sliding each year, while they buy about a quarter through large chains, and the rest by mail order, at Wal-Marts and Price Clubs, and on the Internet.
Independent booksellers, though sometimes more glorious in memory than in fact, have traditionally specialized in discovering smaller, more idiosyncratic books and recommending them to customers. Chains, with their discounts, do particularly well at moving large quantities; hence the towers of the latest Anne Rice or Michael Crichton that greet shoppers at the door. Though superstores stock tens of thousands of titles, which assures more books of national distribution, many midlist books get consigned to the stores' depths, two or three lonely volumes unnoticed by clerks or customers. After a couple of months, they're likely to get boxed up—this is the rare business in which retailers can return unsold merchandise—and sent back.
To ward off this fate usually requires money—marketing dollars, another arena in which midlist books are at a disadvantage. Simply to ensure that a new book spends two weeks on a chain's front tables, and gets included in some advertising, a publisher has to pay about ＄10,000 through subsidies known as “coop advertising,” according to the Authors Guild report. Many of the chain-store devices that bring books to customers' attention—window displays, cardboard sales racks—carry price tags. So, of course, do key elements of the publicity apparatus: Sending an author on tour costs at least ＄1,500 per city.
But the marketing budget for a midlist book is usually meager; the industry rule of thumb has long been “a buck a book.” A publisher that prints 10,000 copies of a biography, after deducting the cost of sending galleys and review copies to editors and critics, may not have enough left to buy prominent store placement, let alone send the author on the road.
Meanwhile, the Big Book gets steadily bigger. The novel that topped the Publishers Weekly 1979 fiction bestseller list, a Robert Ludlum thriller called The Matarese Circle, sold 250,000 copies in hardcover. Twenty years later, a novel that sells a quarter of a million copies won't even make PW's annual top 30 in fiction.
For a midlist author, what results is “devastating disappointment: Your book is out, you hold it in your hands, and you realize that nothing else is going to happen,” says author Nicholas Lemann, who chaired the guild's study committee on midlist books. “It'll go to stores across the country, get returned in 90 days, and it's as if it were never published.”
If worthy books get overlooked and writing them becomes increasingly unrewarding, authors ask, where will the next generation of writers come from? What happens to readers when marketing efforts increasingly steer them toward a small number of big-name authors frequently duplicating the elements of their last bestsellers? What potential classics may never find their audiences? The culture itself is diminished when new voices and explorations of important subjects are unable to make an impact. A long list of hallowed authors, from William Faulkner to Anne Tyler, had early publishing histories that were, for extended periods, financially unimpressive.
Publishing executives get weary of taking this particular rap. No publisher can subsist solely on bestsellers, they point out: Knowing exactly which title will connect is too uncertain, and the multimillion-dollar advances given to best-selling authors eat up too much of the profits. So every house takes chances on unknown writers, tries to nurture their careers over several years, and works to get them attention without generating red ink. Any house would love to discover the next original literary voice. A publisher that launches 200 to 300 new titles a year has to make choices, of course; books deemed more likely to pay off will get more money, more effort, more of everything. But modest sales remain acceptable, they insist, as long as the numbers keep rising.
They are right about all those things, and right to point out that making a living as a writer has always been very difficult. But many also acknowledge that in the book game, midlist authors get fewer at-bats than they used to. A small first book is acceptable, probably a second, possibly a third. But sooner rather than later, a writer whose stats aren't improving markedly will get yanked from the lineup.
“We'll publish everything you write,” Bill Hoffman's first editor at Doubleday told him in the 1960s. No editor would, or honestly could, say that now.
The first time Hoffman sold a novel, he was nearly broke and perilously close to enrolling in graduate school. But ever since a Washington and Lee professor had told him he had the makings of a writer, that was all he ever wanted to be. “I made a deal with the Lord,” he says. “Kind of a prayer, I guess … ‘If you'll just get me a book published, I won't ask any more.’”
He confesses to not having kept his end of the deal. Nevertheless, on New Year's Day 1954, he came home exhilarated from a great day's bird hunting. “Cold, crisp. I'd shot well. The dogs had done well. Sunset was just right. I came in and saw a telegram under the door.” A Doubleday editor wanted to publish The Trumpet Unblown, the unflinching World War II novel Hoffman had written about a young Virginia private quickly disabused of his notions of military gallantry; Hoffman himself had waded onto Normandy's Utah Beach with the Army Medical Corps. With news of his book's acceptance, “I felt I'd been let out of prison,” he remembers. He grabbed a bottle and went off to celebrate with friends.
An inveterate storyteller in person as on the page, Hoffman has an abundance of such tales about his early life. How his first paid writing gigs were love letters crafted on behalf of his military school classmates. How that Washington and Lee professor's seminar included another aspiring young author, known as T. K. Wolfe, who wore natty tattersall vests and was “beginning to write some good stuff.” How they remained friends when they both went to New York, Hoffman taking a night job at a bank so he could write during the day, until a revered professor at his alma mater, Hampden-Sydney College, called and commanded, “Boah, come on down heah and teach these freshmen some English!” He obeyed and has been a Virginian ever since, while Tom Wolfe stayed up north and had a different sort of career.
“We've loved it here,” says Hoffman. Here is a parcel of countryside called Wynyard, with stables and outbuildings and a brick farmhouse built in the 1830s; he's rocking on the broad front porch, looking out at the front pasture—tawny on a warm October afternoon—whose split-rail fence he built himself. Today happens to be the day that HarperCollins starts shipping Blood and Guile from a warehouse in Scranton, Pa., to bookstores across the country.
Once, he and Sue kept as many as 16 horses here, raised vegetables and chickens and two daughters, had a small menagerie of pets and hunting dogs. Now, the population has dwindled to a cat, one temperamental thoroughbred named Fling, and the senior Hoffmans, who no longer ride for fear of injury. Sue nurtures her flower gardens but has given up on vegetables; Bill does chores but lets someone else manage the haying. What hasn't changed, after all this time, is that he writes.
He's up at 6 a.m. and by 6:15 is at the computer in his office, his old wooden desk turned away from the window so that he won't be distracted by the view. The routine hasn't varied: He writes a first draft quickly, because a blank screen is too frightening to bear, then reworks it several times, finally tapping at each sentence like a diamond cutter until all the excess falls away and what remains is perfectly clean.
Yet as Hoffman has plugged away, decade after decade, the publishing business has changed around him, sometimes without his quite realizing it. An unfailingly good-natured man, he rarely sounds angry about that, but he frequently seems bewildered.
The Doubleday relationship, for example, lasted through seven novels, from The Trumpet Unblown (“A powerful anti-war book,” said the New York Times Book Review) through A Death of Dreams in 1973. None sold more than 5,000 or 6,000 copies, despite good reviews, but nobody seemed to mind; by paying Hoffman modest ＄10,000 advances and selling the paperback rights, Doubleday was turning a small profit on his books, and a small profit was enough.
“He was a very good writer,” says Tim Seldes, his first editor. “I thought he'd have the same kind of success as Mailer and James Jones had.” If Hoffman was taking some years to get there, well, “that was what you expected back then … We all, when we took on a first novelist, assumed we were in for the long haul.”
Hoffman's next editor felt the same way. But by the '70s Doubleday was going through management upheavals and becoming, like the rest of the business, less tolerant: Hoffman still hadn't broken out and his seventh book had no paperback sale, which led to his eighth being rejected. His agent, Emilie Jacobson, blames the corporate mergers that had begun to consolidate many publishers into a few large ones “controlled more by the MBA/bottom line types” than by editors who recognized Hoffman's literary gifts.
“They're a business; they're not charitable institutions,” Hoffman recognized. But in this changed landscape, “I was sitting around sort of baffled about what to do next.”
Through the '80s and '90s, as New York turned a cold shoulder, he published mainly with university presses that printed only a few thousand copies and drew limited attention; he felt himself begin to disappear. And because academic publishers paid token or no advances, he also tightened an already snug belt. Bill and Sue got by because they'd paid off the farm, raised much of their own food, drove secondhand cars—and because Bill taught at Hampden-Sydney and also managed to make money in the stock market. But as his daughters grew, “they saw other men going to offices with briefcases, getting ahead in the world,” he fretted. “Their compatriots had a lot of advantages my girls didn't. That hurt.”
Even more troubling was Hoffman's fear that those editors rejecting his work might be onto something. “Maybe I just don't have it anymore,” he thought. “Like an athlete who's outlived his usefulness on the football field.” At one point he was on the verge of becoming a stockbroker; a Richmond financial firm was ready to take him on. But he was unable to stay away from the typewriter.
Worse than a midlist writer, Hoffman was also becoming—another phrase nobody likes—a regional writer. In the South, where fellow writers revere his work, he's been plied with tributes: awards, honorary degrees, a symposium devoted to his work. He's published two dozen stories in the prestigious Sewanee Review, more than any other writer, including Peter Taylor and Flannery O'Connor. The University of Missouri Press even brought out a book about him, a collection of critical essays called The Fictional World of William Hoffman, edited by a professor friend, William Frank. Outside the South, though, he remained little known, dogged by the phrase “a writer's writer”—a euphemism, Hoffman joked, for a writer whose books don't sell.
Why this was so, given the high literary quality of his work, continues to puzzle his fans and peers. It's true that Hoffman takes on meaty themes: identity, religion, and that Southern favorite, the weight of the past. But he is rarely heavy-handed, his ideas tucked into compelling stories about war, family, murder. Besides, “when you begin reading, you discover the wonderful way he has with language,” Frank says. “Just the way he describes a dead bird, that wonderful cadence—it's almost poetry.”
A spare passage from Blood and Guile:
… The grouse flapped up from under sumac, its wings beating the bush, its neck stretched long, and its gleaming eyes took me in as it curved left away. When Drake fired, the load hit the bird so squarely it went limp, spun into a drooping fall, and bounced against the ground, where it left a sprinkle of blood across snow.
“Poleaxed him,” Drake said, and stroked the bird before handing it to me. I drew fingers over the beautiful and marvelously complex design of brown and bronze. The black stripe across its tail feathers appeared a masterful touch of creation. I felt the warmth of the bird's breast and the last lingering tremor of departing life.
No one expects William Hoffman to be John Grisham, but why doesn't he have the belated recognition and income of, say, the late Wallace Stegner?
Perhaps it's because he was out of sight in Charlotte Court House; he can't even remember the last time he was in New York. Or perhaps the places Hoffman describes so evocatively—he sets his books in Tidewater Virginia, the West Virginia mountains, the farms and tobacco towns of the Southside—no longer have much mystique. But by the late '90s, when his mainstay Louisiana State University Press stopped acquiring original fiction, Hoffman faced the prospect of having to stop publishing altogether.
Then came Tidewater Blood, Hoffman's 1998 novel in which a nearly feral hero named Charley LeBlanc, living in a swamp shack and subsisting on fish and muskrats, is suspected of planting a fatal explosion in a plantation house. Charley, it emerges, is the black sheep of the aristocratic family within, having made a couple of left turns through Vietnam and Leavenworth since leaving home. He encounters a gallery of vivid characters—truckers, a cave-dwelling hermit, and Blackie, the lady barkeep in a pink eye patch and cowboy boots—while simultaneously fleeing the law and attempting to clear his name. Hoffman crafted the tale with his usual serious purpose, uncertain of its fate. Happily, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a small publisher known for quality fiction, took it on, deciding that what he'd considered simply his next book was a taut but literary suspense novel.
As sometimes happens at smaller houses, Algonquin—which publishes only two dozen titles a year—lavished considerable attention on Tidewater Blood. It solicited jacket blurbs from other novelists, put together a regional tour with 21 events over eight weeks, badgered local papers and radio stations to schedule interviews as the author and his wife drove to each stop. It wangled reviews throughout the South and beyond—Houston, Cleveland, Chicago, even People magazine. And the book won the Hammett Prize, given by the International Association of Crime Writers. All this added up to still-modest sales—an initial 10,000 print run, followed by a 5,000 second printing—but the “sell through” was clean (translation: few returns). HarperCollins vice president and executive editor Carolyn Marino heard about the novel, read it and promptly bought the paperback rights. “The writing is very beautiful, yet the story is an accessible and commercial one,” she decided. “It's rare to find that combination.”
Like an amusement park ride with a few too many thrills, Hoffman's career track—having lurched from promising newcomer status to barely surviving veteran to rediscovered treasure—then took one more swerve. He completed his next novel, tapping a minor character from Tidewater Blood, Charley LeBlanc's meek attorney, Walter B. Frampton II, as its protagonist—and Algonquin promptly rejected it. “Turned into the damnedest mess you've ever seen,” Hoffman says. He rewrote it several times, but his editor says that “we had different visions,” that the book was “more of a mainstream novel than Tidewater Blood”—a problem for the resolutely literary Algonquin.
So perhaps it's fitting that Carolyn Marino stepped in and bought the rejected manuscript, which became Blood and Guile, for HarperCollins, where—as at most big publishing houses—mainstream is the point. She loved Hoffman's characters, particularly Frampton, the unprepossessing hero who would rather listen to Mozart than hunt grouse, but develops a quiet courage.
Hoffman, a bit dazed by all this, found himself with a two-book deal: a ＄50,000 advance for each novel, more money than he's ever made on a book. “I hope it has a nice, big readership,” Marino said on the eve of Blood and Guile's publication. Hoffman's fans and supporters had their fingers crossed, too: this deal could catapult him beyond regional-writer standing and off the midlist.
Hoffman himself was nervous, however. He responded to the pre-publication stress the way he always did: by working each morning on his next novel. He'd decided to bring Charley LeBlanc back to center stage. The first few chapters and a detailed outline were due in January; he thought the work was coming along nicely.
That much, at least, lay within his control. Steeling himself for the November 1 publication date of Blood and Guile, he told people he felt like a combat pilot who'd been shot down one too many times. Public appearances can be delightful or humiliating, reviews can be wounding, but being overlooked hurts worst of all. “The competition's pretty tough out there,” he said. “Books come pouring off the presses. You can just get lost in this torrent of books.” If this book doesn't thrive, he fears that HarperCollins could find a reason to reject the next one, or to publish it without commitment and leave it to die.
The insufficient size of advances has long been a favorite gripe whenever authors, a notoriously malcontented lot, get together. But complaints about inadequate promotion probably run a close second.
More and more, feeling ignored by their publishers, writers try to mount their own marketing campaigns. They hire independent publicists, even though that costs thousands. Or they set up their own signings. They dream up issue-oriented panels, with themselves among the talking heads, and pitch the idea to producers whose names they find in TV talk-show directories.
“Unless you're getting a mid-six-figure contract, you can't count on your publisher to do much at all,” warns Robin Davis Miller, an Authors Guild attorney who leads its seminars on do-it-yourself publicity. “I would expect nothing.”
What a publisher does or doesn't do isn't the only factor that attracts readers (word of mouth is powerful, Oprah is omnipotent), but it can certainly make a difference. What any non-brand-name author dreams about is a campaign like the one Little, Brown and Co. has designed for Silver Spring writer George Pelecanos, whose well-reviewed crime novels have won him a solid reputation but have yet to climb past midlist sales levels. His ninth novel, Right as Rain, being published this month, marks the launch of a new series—an opportune time, the house has decided, for a major push.
So, well before publication, Little, Brown sent Pelecanos to regional trade shows. He autographed galleys at booksellers' gatherings in Boston and Washington and attended a major mystery convention in Denver, where Little, Brown hosted a reception and gave away more galleys. (Galleys are printers' proofs, photocopied and distributed before publication to give booksellers and the media an advance look; Little, Brown ordered a hefty 2,000 with pricey color covers.)
The original plan was to send Pelecanos on a six-city book tour. But then master crime writer Elmore Leonard, who rarely blurbs books, supplied a jacket quote that began, “A terrific book full of characters I wish I had thought of,” and bookstores started to request appearances. By late fall the tour had expanded to 12 cities—half in tandem with best-selling novelist Michael Connelly—and the publisher was planning newspaper ads. Pelecanos contributed a conveniently timed essay for the March GQ, and Talk magazine commissioned a feature story … and none of this guarantees that Right as Rain will sell 50,000 copies when it hits stores, which is enough to propel a book onto the New York Times bestseller list most seasons of the year. But it means that Pelecanos will probably not be sitting at an upcoming Authors Guild seminar griping about his publicist.
For most midlist writers, though, publication represents a series of battles, with acceptance of a manuscript only the start of the struggle. Within the publishing house, the editor has to fight to rev up the publicity and marketing departments enough to secure the book a decent marketing budget. The marketing chief has to fight to get the sales reps excited, and the sales reps have to fight to get booksellers to place orders and then the publicists have to fight for reviews and features.
All these skirmishes are harder when an author has compiled a history of mediocre sales, especially now that sales figures are computerized and any chain-store factotum can see the sad story on the screen. “Familiarity does breed contempt,” says David Rosenthal, publisher of Simon & Schuster's trade division. “It's very hard to go back to the bookstores and say, 'We know you've sold 10,000 copies of this author's books before, but this one is the one that's going to sell 30,000.' They laugh at you”—and then order no more than they sold last time. Better to be a first-timer with no track record.
Now and then, a much-published author comes to this conclusion and actually adopts a pseudonym in order to shed a troublesome sales history. Rosenthal tried it last year: A West Coast suspense novelist generally sold 18,000 to 25,000 hardcover copies, not a dreadful number but one that, instead of rising, was starting to slip. Rosenthal suggested a change of authorial identity, and last spring, Simon & Schuster published this renamed writer's novel, with a skimpy bio and no jacket photo. After all that stealth, how did the book do? “Lousy,” Rosenthal admits. “Actually worse.”
Sales history is a problem Bill Hoffman also faces. In addition, the idea that authors need to tackle their own marketing has yet to trickle down to Charlotte Court House. After all, Hoffman has a team in New York that's supposed to worry about steering his career. There's Emilie Jacobson, his literary agent for more than 30 years, a tiny woman in enormous glasses who has a computer in her office but prefers to use an old Royal manual typewriter and to record her authors' sales and earnings in big green ledger books. There's Carolyn Marino, who as editor is Hoffman's advocate within HarperCollins, and David Brown, the 24-year-old publicist assigned to Blood and Guile. Hoffman's never met any of these people face to face, or spoken with Marino in the months since they completed work on the manuscript; he's never heard the name Carrie Kania, though as his HarperCollins marketing director she arguably has more to do with his book's success than anyone besides him. But he assumes that selling books is their job, not his.
Yet even the uncomplaining Hoffman, as his publication date looms but his tour itinerary has just three stops on it, starts to wonder what's going on up there. And Sue Hoffman, a scrappy sort with curls the color of steel and a will to match, wonders too.
They are puttering around their kitchen one afternoon, talking about a couple of personal trips planned for the next few weeks. They have a meeting coming up in Charleston, W.Va., Bill's home town; shouldn't he have a bookstore signing while they're there, maybe some local media attention? And they're driving to Greenville, S.C., for their granddaughter's birthday; shouldn't some event be scheduled? The stores where Bill drew satisfying crowds while promoting Tidewater Blood—do the proprietors even know he has a new novel coming out? “I feel funny trying to manipulate things,” Sue says. “I hate to impose and ask favors.” But what about that lovely bookstore in Lynchburg, just an hour away, where dozens of people turned out last time?
“Lynchburg, I could sell some books,” Bill says.
“No question.” Sue thinks maybe she'll drop that nice bookstore owner a note. And she'll call the store in nearby Farmville. And what about the Library of Virginia in Richmond, where Bill has twice been invited for lunch-hour talks? Their friend Henry is on the library board. …
“I'll manage something,” she murmurs, jotting notes on a legal pad, already mapping out the Blood & Guile Tour. She knows that Bill dislikes self-promotion, that he still half-believes that a good book will somehow find readers. “Well, that's hogwash,” she's decided. “Too many other books out there and people screaming about 'em. So I'll scream for him.”
Bill has been telling himself, and Sue, that a big publisher can't be as attentive as a small one like Algonquin. He's trying not to get spooked or annoyed by HarperCollins's apparently less aggressive approach. “But bottom line,” Sue frets, “don't they want to sell books?”
The Blood & Guile Tour, after its painful 70-chair kickoff in Blacksburg, picks up with a weekend signing at the Yarn Corner, Hoffman's hometown bookstore, one of the cluster of gracious old brick buildings that constitute downtown Charlotte Court House. The event has been front-page news in the weekly Charlotte Gazette and the Brookneal Union Star, and almost as soon as proprietor Janet Early opens for business, Hoffman's most loyal readers start filing in.
Here's Clarence, his former tennis partner. And Jim, who's buying six copies of Blood and Guile for the county library. Tammy, who went to school with the Hoffmans' daughter Margaret. And many members of the Village Presbyterian Church, where the Hoffmans are elders. Over the course of Friday and Saturday afternoons, Bill shakes hands and exchanges courtly greetings (“Hello, Pearl!” “Where've you been keeping yourself, Ann?”) with half the town, it seems: Bruce the math teacher and Wayland the physician and Earl, who owns the local garage. The place hums with a neighborly babble, and lots of people buy an extra copy or two to send to a son on a minesweeper in the Persian Gulf or a daughter-in-law in Atlanta.
“Now if you see Larry, don't you dare say, ‘Larry, how did you enjoy that book?’ Because he's not getting it until Christmas,” instructs Hoffman's friend Pinky Bates, a school administrator. And Hoffman promises he won't say a word.
“That was great,” Early declares after the last fan has left. She's moved more than 70 copies of Blood and Guile, plus a dozen paperbacks of Tidewater Blood.
“Pretty good for country folk,” says the author, pleased.
But a few days later, the Hoffmans drive to Richmond for a church bazaar where Bill and a friendly young fellow who writes maritime history sit at a long table for three pointless hours. People sidle down the table and look at the books; they seem willing to discuss the books; they evince little interest in buying the books. So Hoffman and his fellow author, in a gesture of literary solidarity, purchase each other's.
The reviews are starting to come in, too, and decades of reading them has not immunized Hoffman against the sting of criticism. The trade magazines have been laudatory: Blood and Guile got starred reviews in both Publishers Weekly and the crankier Kirkus Reviews (“tense, filled with sharp characterizations, and beautifully worked out”), a rare double plaudit. The Roanoke Times & World News raves (“a masterful tale of courage and fear”) as usual. But Hoffman's first-ever review in the Los Angeles Times, e-mailed to him by his publicist, is unenthusiastic. And his first Washington Post review in 30 years praises the book's charm and “invitational coziness” while chiding that “it's obvious from about Page 20 who's done this dastardly deed.”
“Everybody says bad reviews are better than no reviews,” Hoffman stews. “I'm not sure about that.”
A week later, he's feeling better. A swing through South Carolina nets another dispiriting bookstore appearance, but also an enjoyable talk at a Greenville high school, and then a sweet evening with a reading group in Columbia. The lakeside home was gracious, the questions were intelligent, and all 20-plus members were clutching copies of Blood and Guile. Plus, the reviews in the St. Petersburg, Norfolk and Charleston, W.Va., papers are all excellent. But where's the review in the Richmond Times-Dispatch? Hoffman always gets one, and it's always a gush, but this time it's delayed and his signings in Richmond and Farmville suffer from lower-than-last-time attendance. By late November he's rattled and perplexed. “We need some publicity,” he says, “and we're not getting it.”
HarperCollins has not disregarded Blood and Guile during this six- to eight-week interval when most books either catch on or falter.
Here's what it's done:
It prints about 10,000 copies initially, preferring to err on the low side because publishers would rather risk running short than getting stuck with returns. Then it quickly goes back to press for 2,500 more copies, which will take several weeks to print and ship. The attractive book jacket, of snowy trees and a mountain cabin, is a concession to Hoffman, who spent days looking at an earlier attempt and decided he deeply disliked it.
Marino talks up the book to contacts in the mystery and suspense field, and submits it for the major mystery awards.
HarperCollins gets review copies out. David Brown sent 50 to 75 galleys in July to monthly publications that plan their issues far in advance. The marketing staff sends 200 books to independent and mystery bookstores, with an accompanying letter from Marino praising its “gripping story” and “beautiful prose.”
Brown mails 210 more books, with a press release and the trade reviews tucked inside, to every major newspaper and newsmagazine with a book page. In late October he starts calling those publications, from the Abilene Reporter-News through the Winston-Salem Journal. “Just want to make sure you received a copy of Blood and Guile by William Hoffman, his follow-up to the award-winning Tidewater Blood,” Brown says into the phone. There's rarely anyone on the other end, just voice mail systems, but the reminder may help.
The one thing HarperCollins does beyond the basics is to hire a firm specializing in radio, to book interviews with Hoffman at stations around the country. Radio is cheap (less than ＄3,000 for this company, compared with ＄4,000 or ＄5,000 at the more expensive firm the house sometimes uses for big-name authors) and helps spread the word.
This is what HarperCollins doesn't do:
It doesn't send Hoffman to booksellers' gatherings. The spring shows fell too early; the fall shows came too late.
It doesn't order ARCs, advance reader's copies—fancier galleys that are printed instead of photocopied, with glossy color covers. ARCs are a potent industry signal that a publisher intends to put money behind a title.
It doesn't send Hoffman on the road. Travel is expensive and “it's really hard to tour an author these days if they don't have a name-brand identity,” says marketing director Carrie Kania. Hoffman's small “regional” tour, which means he and Sue put 1,772 miles on their Buick LeSabre (the first new car they've ever owned), is largely the result of their contacting friends and bookstore owners themselves.
It doesn't try to arrange additional publicity, probably because publicist David Brown must juggle 15 to 30 books a year.
It doesn't advertise. No publisher does, really, except for already-known authors. “It's almost horrifying how much it costs,” Kania says.
And there isn't nearly enough coop money to persuade most chain bookstores to display it prominently.
So while there are logical-sounding reasons for everything HarperCollins doesn't do, the bottom line is that by the end of November it has shipped and sold fewer copies of Hoffman's novel than Algonquin sold of his last one, something no publisher likes to see. Barnes & Noble ordered the book in moderate quantities in the Beltway region and at selected stores that do well with suspense, but some stores didn't carry even a single copy. Every Borders store did stock it, but only about a quarter ordered a “display quantity” (five copies or more), enough to put on upfront tables.
Blood and Guile got about a dozen reviews beyond the early trades, most of them positive; more will trickle in over the coming months. It could still have a small additional printing if sales pick up. The radio effort seemed to fizzle, however: Hoffman received a list of stations to call at prearranged times, but some were booked for dates when he was on the road and unavailable and they weren't rescheduled; at other stations, no one answered the phone when he called. A supposed “tour” of 20 or more markets shrinks to four actual interviews by year's end, with a couple more scheduled for January and February.
This is all pretty standard, and HarperCollins says it's not unhappy with Blood and Guile's resulting so-so performance. “We're building his career,” Kania, the marketing director, says of Hoffman. “This was not the big breakout book, but it brings him up one more notch to where we eventually want him to be.” For the trade paperback edition, and the next hardcover, the house will try for more reviews, more media, more attention from mystery booksellers. Perhaps forgetting for a moment that Hoffman is 75, and not realizing that though he and Sue are healthy and vigorous he has made inquiries about cemetery plots, Kania says: “This was our first hardcover with him. The next one will do better, and hopefully the next and the next.”
Meanwhile, there's this bit of lucky timing: A book that arrives in stores in November will likely still be there in January. The staff will be far too busy restocking shelves and working the registers during the frantic Christmas season to send it back.
Questions about the viability of midlist publishing come at a time when the book business is already twitchy. It's grown accustomed to change, to the continuing rounds of mergers and takeovers, the clout of the chains, the advent of Internet bookselling. But the pace of change has picked up and some shifts feel more seismic.
Consider the latest development: Electronic publishing already allows readers to download some books onto home computers or portable reading devices, or to have books printed on demand, and may one day allow most consumers to bypass retailers and publishers altogether. Stephen King offered a double-barreled preview last year, first directing Simon & Schuster to publish his novella Riding the Bullet only electronically, then self-publishing a serial novel as long as readers kept paying for online installments. Publishers were relieved when the latter experiment lapsed after six chapters (not enough fans were paying up), and it was never clear how such efforts might fare with an author named Stephen Queen. But King made money and the implications remain unnerving. “People are scared about e-books,” says Simon & Schuster's Rosenthal. “They're scared they'll make publishing houses as we know them obsolete, which may indeed be true.”
Digital publishing might prove a boon to midlist authors. Jason Epstein, former Random House editorial director, has declared in lectures and articles and in the just-published Book Business that mainstream publishing is already a terminal case, that technology can eliminate such middlemen, and that what looms is a revolution on the order of Gutenberg's. “Like the difference between sending a boat across the Atlantic with a sack of mail versus making a phone call,” Epstein says. He envisions a consumer ordering a book on the Web; it will be nicely printed and bound at an ATM-like kiosk near his home; he will pay less than he does now and the author will get paid more. The independent Web publisher that arranges the transaction can still make a profit because it involves no warehouses, sales force or returns. Even Amazon.com, which authors tend to like because it has infinite shelf space and doesn't have to return books, can't match that low-cost model.
Convinced that they dare not ignore the digital future, the major houses and their digital partners are already investing hundreds of millions in e-publishing. Its trajectory and timetable remain very uncertain, however, and other people in the business mutter caustically about the last supposed revolution, books on CD-ROMs. “Haven't heard much about that lately,” one executive says.
In this nervous period, one can detect undercurrents of anxiety about how much publishing still matters. Perhaps books are simply becoming less culturally central; most attract fewer consumers than a 1,000-watt radio station in Springfield, Mass., not to mention a failing TV sitcom. Perhaps publishing, where generations of bright college grads felt privileged to work, where service to literature was understood to compensate for lousy salaries, has lost its already-dimming glamour. How long will talented young people continue to enlist when they can't afford a one-bedroom New York apartment? When the Bill Hoffmans of the world are outsold by “novelist” Ivana Trump?
Perhaps the industry simply cranks out more books than readers want to buy or even glance at. Several major publishers, agreeing that it would be wiser to produce fewer titles and give each more support, have trimmed their lists. Yet the number of new hardcover titles still tops 50,000 each year.
Why do they do it? frustrated writers sometimes wail. Why do publishers bother with midlist books if they are unable or unwilling to let the buying public know they exist? Aside from the inexorability found in any industry (editors need to acquire, catalogues need to be filled), the likeliest answer is that occasionally the stars align and a midlist title becomes a Big Book. A memoir by an unknown high school teacher, acquired for a ＄125,000 advance and given a respectable but not terribly optimistic first printing of 27,000, benefits from a forceful marketing effort (and from its own appeal, and from just plain luck) and turns into Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, which spent 117 lucrative weeks on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list.
Perhaps the more mystifying question is why authors persist. Here, the entire enterprise lifts into the realm of the irrational. After the first book or two, most midlist writers grasp the odds against the next one being widely read or making much money—they may be irrational, but they're not delusional—yet they rarely quit the field. They get bounced by big publishers and head for smaller ones. They see publishing catalogues where novels and biographies are almost outnumbered by offerings from wrestlers, sex gurus, fashion designers and extreme skateboarders—and refuse to take the hint. The book (not the computer screen) remains a sacred object, one with the occasional power to confer immortality. As Hoffman put it as his book tour was winding down, “You can't help it, you've got to be a writer. I'm 75 and here I still am writing books. It's as inevitable as the color of your hair or your eyes.”
The final stop on the Blood & Guile Tour is one of the best: a noon reading at the Library of Virginia. The library executive who introduces the author is eloquent in his praise. Perhaps 75 people—old friends, strangers, library staffers—listen to Hoffman tell stories and read from his novel while they eat lunch from styrofoam containers and paper bags. Afterward, they line up in the library's soaring glass-and-stone lobby so that Hoffman can sign their books.
“I see you switched publishing houses,” says one fan, a clerk who's slipped away from a Richmond law firm, who harbors writing aspirations himself.
“They kinda switched on me,” Hoffman says.
“Really!” The clerk looks surprised; how can such a longtime novelist with so many awards be expendable?
“Publishing,” Hoffman tells him, “is almost as crazy as lawyering.”
At home, as the weeks pass and the first snow falls, Hoffman increasingly turns his attention to his new book. It keeps him from feeling discouraged as an ominous silence seems to descend around Blood and Guile. He doesn't hear anything much from Carolyn Marino; David Brown has few additional reviews to forward; he has no idea whether the book is moving. “You kind of expect the world to stop,” he muses. “Heck, it's just a book coming out.”
And yet, though finishing a book feels “so damn futile,” here he is, at it again, every morning.
The fantasy he allows himself, now and then, doesn't involve seeing his name on a bestseller list or cashing a hefty royalty check; it's simpler than that. In all the years he's been writing, he's never seen anyone reading a book by William Hoffman. “I wonder,” he says, “if it'll happen in my lifetime.”
He envisions himself strolling along a beach—possibly Holden Beach in North Carolina, where his family vacations each August—and noticing someone absorbed in a book. Say the reader's a young woman (“in her thirties, that's what I call young these days”), stretched out on a beach chair under an umbrella. She's wearing sunglasses and perhaps a straw hat, and Hoffman, drawing closer, suddenly realizes that he recognizes the jacket. It's his novel, in hardcover of course, and “she looks entranced by it.”
In this daydream, Hoffman wanders over to discuss the book, but he doesn't identify himself as the author. He just chats for a spell, asking what she thinks, perhaps offering that he enjoyed that novel, too. A little pleasant conversation, and then he walks on. The point, after all, isn't adulation. It's just knowing that someone's paying attention.