Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Look elsewhere, writer

I was reminded of Thomas Wolfe—specifically, Look Homeward, Angel—while reading the short story "Bible" by Tobias Wolff the other day.

[Do people read Thomas Wolfe anymore, or are they too impatient to wade through his excessive prose? Look Homeward, Angel is 522 pages in very small type, and it's one of Wolfe's heavily edited works. And yet I loved it when I was a teenager, so much so that I went to live in Asheville for a year and often sat on the porch of the Thomas Wolfe house there.]

Surprisingly, it had nothing to do with the similarity in last names, or the biblical/angelic reference. I was reminded of the passage in Look Homeward, Angel when Wolfe describes his father's intense desire to carve an angel's head as beautiful as the one he saw in a Baltimore stone mason shop:

"He felt that he wanted, more than anything in the world, to carve delicately with a chisel. He wanted to wreak something dark and unspeakable in him into cold stone. He wanted to carve an angel's head." (LHA, p. 4)

And the eventual revelation that he would never be able to master it:

"He never found it. He never learned to carve an angel's head. The dove, the lamb, the smooth joined marble hands of death, and letters fair and fine — but not the angel." (p. 4)

Wolff's short story, which appears in The Best American Short Stories 2008, is not about stone cutters or angels, but a school teacher. In the opening paragraph, he sets the scene and sets up the action to come with a few simple sentences:

"IT WAS DARK when Maureen left the Hundred Club. She stopped just outside the door, a little thrown by the sudden cold, the change from daylight to night. A gusting breeze chilled her face. Lights burned over the storefronts, gleaming in patches of ice along the sidewalk. She reached in: her pockets for her gloves, then hopelessly searched her purse. She'd left them in the club. If she went back for them, she knew she'd end up staying - and so much for all her good intentions...." (p. 312)

I could immediately picture this scene, painted without the use of color or verbose description. I was standing on the sidewalk with Maureen, freezing cold.

I'm not sure I've ever been able to do this in any of the fiction I've written; I'm not sure I will ever do it this well. I felt a similar recognition when I first read The Onion. Until then, I had considered myself a competent writer of humor, but my parodies seemed clunky in comparison.

I don't want to give up writing fiction because it's always been so pleasurable for me to immerse myself into someone else's life and to try to figure it out for them. So, I'll continue to chisel away at prose, seeking (in Wolfe's words) "the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, a door...."; hoping something—a novel, a short story, an essay—might somehow, successfully, emerge.

1 comment:

Beth Blevins said...

Initially published as "Look homeward, and jealous" (since "JEAL-ous" sort-of sounds like "an-GEL"--get it?) but changed to "Look elsewhere, writer" a few minutes later when my teenage son walked in the door and said the original title was "awful." [If you get this through RSS feed, the title will remain the same.]

Still don't like the title. I'm open to suggestions for better ones. Hard to come up with something that encompasses both Wolfe/ffs without referring to them specifically...