Review: You Can’t Go Home Again

This is a sister review to my review of Max Perkins Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg.  When that book was finished I had a list of about five books I wanted to read, and the first one that I managed to get at the library was You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe.                                                                                                                                                                                         First of all a disclaimer. I don’t review books negatively.  If I write a review here, or elsewhere, I only write positive reviews. If I can’t write a positive review I say nothing. I got into that habit with poetry. There is a lot of poetry I just don’t get and there are a lot of people who don’t get the poetry  or prose I write. I have a spreadsheet full of rejections to prove that. But, some do like what I write.  I refuse to be critical of another writer on a public forum because it may be a work that just doesn’t resonate with me.

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Thomas Wolfe photo by Carl Van Vechten Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress

Now to Thomas Wolfe and his book. As to the author I will be brief, and refer you to A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins, or to one of the many biographies (which I have not yet read) of Thomas Wolfe who lived a short life from 1900 – 1938. He was a big man with big appetites and was rather notorious for writing novels which were essentially, fundamentally, chapters out of his own life.  My opinion is that all writers do that, including me, but he was more blatant about it than most, and wrote when the world was a wee bit less litigious than it is now. If you read A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins you will recognize many of the people mentioned in that work.

The book itself is fantastic. A rolling, rollicking, ramble of stories connected together. I have never read anything like it.  A little bit like stream of consciousness, and a bit like Faulkner only with shorter sentences. But it works. It reads to me like life is. It reads to me like the way life comes at us is as we live it.  There is a plot,maybe, but often it is not all that clear exactly what the plot is.   I see my life like that.  As  one scene after another loosely connected which from certain vantage points manages to have a certain coherence, and perhaps even develops a certain meaning.

In the book the characters are so sharply defined, and undoubtedly taken from Wolfe’s own experiences.  One of the most compelling, in kind of a creepy way, is Judge Bland who is now blind but manages to “see” what is going on all around him. He was a person of some promise who unexpectedly turns into some kind of  malevolent creature. Reminds me a little bit of Gollum from The Hobbit. But I digress.

What is the story line?  The main character, I won’t use the word protagonist since this is not an English Lit class, becomes a big city New York  writer who pens a best seller using the backdrop of his hometown and it’s citizenry for material. Place and persons are only marginally disguised.  Yes. He really did do that.  It is magnificent. However, there is a price to pay not only for fame, but for writing a very public best selling novel which is in essence a gossipy tell all of your hometown.

You can’t go home again.  Not really. But you can revisit your version of what it was like in your mind, or you can put it on paper like Wolfe and every other write does. Highly recommended.

 

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Review: Max Perkins Editor of Genius

If you are a writer, or if you aspire to be one, read this excellent biography. If you are a lover of good literature, or a history buff, read this book. In my opinion Maxwell Perkins was the most influential editor in American literary history. In case your English literature class was woefully deficient, thankfully mine wasn’t, he was the editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe (the first one not the one who wrote Bonfire of the Vanities), Ernest Hemingway, and James Jones. A pantheon of American literature the likes of which we have not seen since. And that is just a partial list. More than editor. He was in essence an essential collaborator to writers who might not have been as successful without him.

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Max Perkins Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg

This book provides a lot of inside information on the writing and editing process. That itself made it worth my time. Knowing how to take a jumbled inchoate manuscript from the scribbles of someone like Thomas Wolfe and help the author turn it into a piece of genuine literature is a rare art. Back in the day an unknown writer could waltz into the Scribner building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan with their manuscript, and had a much better than even chance of seeing the man himself. Many were asked to tea. Compare that to today when charlatans abound in the publishing business and most publishers want to see an edited manuscript before they will look at it.

A. Scott Berg’s work takes us deep inside Scribner’s publishing house (which started as a publisher of religious books), and the storied rise of Max Perkins and the writers he worked with. The book starts slow, because the author takes his time in building the foundation. It picks up steam as it goes along, and I finished the last half of it today because I couldn’t put it down. I had tears in my eyes the last few pages. I cannot ever remember when I have been moved so powerfully by a biography. I suspect never.