Friday, April 29, 2011

Review- You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe


Many years ago, I watched the movie You Can’t Go Home Again starring Chris Sarandon and Lee Grant and wanted to read the book. When I tried to read the book, I found that I could not understand any of it and set it aside for years. I returned to the novel once more, now older and much wiser, and found that the movie did the book a great disservice; the book is a thousand percent better. I don’t know what version of the book the producer and director of the movie read, but the book I read carried much more weight than what they tried to attempt on film. For You Can’t Go Home Again is a prime example of a Great American Novel, the novel that represents a part of America’s history through the eyes of one character; for this, we have eyes of the author George Webber. George begins our story as a wild eyed and frustrated author trying to make it in 1920s New York. His lover, theatre patron Esther Jack, is one of the few outlets in his life that can soothe him; however, he is driven to do something great, something that will change America and the people who occupy it. He comes from the Deep South, a place during this time that is frozen in their ways and beliefs; George was one of the lucky ones who escaped to seek a better life. Later in the book, he must return to Libya Hill to attend a funeral of his last living relative and it is there that he witnesses the death of his town by the hands of those who live there.

After his first novel is published, a scathing and yet accurate telling of his home town, Libya Hill is in an uproar over having their dirty secrets revealed to the rest of the world, not so much because of the acts themselves but that he chose to write about them with such frank honesty. This act begins George’s learning experience of “home”; what it is and where it truly lies. Throughout the remainder of the book, his travels back to New York and in Europe are his searches for a new “home”, one that will accept him for who and what he truly is. New York takes him as a literary darling, complete with those who seek to use him for their own gain, while Nazi Germany loves him like a son, even under the dark cloud of Hitler and the stirrings of the beginning of World War II. He makes friends and lovers then quickly leaves them, for no one is truly permanent in George’s life. To him, it is better that way, whether he wanted it or not. In the end, we see not only redemption and hope for George, but for the rest of America as well.

After reading this novel, I felt proud to have read it. Strange emotion to have for a book but it did happen; this book is a Great American Novel, a task that few novelists can truly achieve. At times, Wolfe’s style of writing locks eyes with you and refuses to let you go until something makes better sense, or something is clearer to you now than before. This is a novel of dreams and hopes dashed and rebuilt, created by sentences and paragraphs that simply amaze the reader. I found myself underlining whole paragraphs because something in them spoke to me, something tugged on my heart as not only an American but as an author, for as I stated before, this is not only a novel of an American man, but of American history. For example:

And by his side was that stern friend, the only one to whom he spoke what in his secret heart he most desired. To Loneliness he whispered, “Fame!” – and Loneliness replied, “Aye, brother, wait and see.”

Another favourite of mine is this:

If fools are fools, then let them be fools where their folly will not injure or impede the slumbers of a serious man.

And yet again is another great paragraph:

“Great trains pass under me,” he thought. “Morning, bright morning, and still they come – all the boys who have dreamed dreams in the little towns. They come forever to the city. Yes, even now they pass below me, wild with joy, mad with hope, drunk with their thoughts of victory. For what? For what? Glory, huge profits, and a girl! All of them come looking for the same magic wand: Power. Power. Power.”

Thomas Wolfe was clearly a master of the English language to write such lyrical and poignant verses; it was simply not enough to just write a scene or a person’s thoughts. In my own opinion, I feel that Wolfe had to give the full experience to the reader so as to truly understand his own thoughts and feelings as described through his characters. Foxhall Edwards, Webber’s publisher, is one such example. During the course of one morning spent in his home, readers catch a glimpse of a man who is, on all outward appearances, calm, intelligent and a part of the Elite. However, the inside is quite a different story; he spends his thoughts thinking of how the world has changed and breathed new and different life around him through women. His wife and daughters represent everything that is wrong to him and yet he realizes that he cannot escape it. For as he walks through his home to enjoy his breakfast, he no longer recognizes his home, thanks to interior decorators employed by his wife. When he reaches his table, he is no longer sure of himself and his new surroundings but does realize that it is because of women, whatever IT is. Then, a strange event occurs; Ruth, his fourth daughter, comes down for breakfast and enters into a rather tension filled conversation with her father, who is obviously trying to reach out to her. He sees her as a possible guide in understanding this new world and forces her to accept this role, while Ruth merely wants to eat her breakfast and flutter away to school. Wolfe draws out every other word spoken by Ruth, fitting for an exasperated and frustrated teenager who is trying to get away from her boring father, while Fox’s words are concise, tense and deliberate. Then, just when we can no longer bear it, Ruth escapes her father and flutters away like a little bird, happy in her new freedom while Fox sits, ponders and the world goes on.

You Can’t Go Home Again is a book of an American Dream, a dream of freedom, a clear voice and the rest of the world’s attempt to destroy no matter how good the intentions. Thank you, Mr. Wolfe.

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