Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
Final Verdict: 2.25 out of 4.0
2 – Plot/Story could work with better development.
Houston, we have a problem. Let me begin my discussion on this book’s plot and story by allowing the book to speak for itself, as it were. Here is an excerpt from page 487 (Scribner edition) which sums up my thoughts on the whole book:
“I think I am hell, and they say I stink because I have not had a bath. But I could not stink, even if I never had a bath. Only the others stink. My dirtiness is better than their cleanliness. The web of my flesh is finer; my blood is a subtle elixir; the hair of my head, the marrow of my spine, the cunning jointures of my bones, and all the combining jellies, fats, meats, oils, and sinews of my flesh, the spittle of my mouth, the sweat of my skin, is mixed with rarer elements, and is fairer and finer than their gross peasant beef.”
In short, the narrator (Eugene) thinks he is the shit. He believes he is a genius above geniuses – that he walks heads and shoulders, figuratively and literally, since he is rather tall, above anyone he meets – family, especially, but also friends, neighbors, whores, teachers, schoolmates, etc. He reminds me a great deal of Holden Caulfield, without the charming self-deprecation. And, whereas in The Catcher in the Rye we spend most of our time with the narrator, in Look Homeward, Angel, most of our time is spent with Eugene’s family – a large chunk of the story takes place before Eugene’s birth and, even afterward, most of what we are supposed to learn about Eugene comes from interactions with other people. Eugene himself barely makes much appearance until the end of the novel, when things suddenly get wildly metaphysical and conspicuous brush strokes of magical realism close out a novel which is otherwise constrained to the boundaries of Realism and even Naturalism. It was, plain and simple, the most bizarre coming-of-age story I have ever read, and probably the most difficult to read, for two reasons: 1) the character who we are supposed to come-of-age with is rarely a part of the story and 2) when he is a part of the story, he is incredibly obnoxious and self-righteous. He is supposed to be a wunderkind, a literary marvel, but there is no development to show the reader how this came to be, no indication of why we should believe or respect these assertions about Eugene. I am perfectly fine rooting for an awkward, lonely, genius-outsider; but only if I have been given reason to! If more of the story focused on Eugene, rather than his family and if more time was spent developing the relationship between reader and Eugene – the “why we should care about you, you little over-privileged and seemingly misunderstood snot who gets to go to Harvard for free boo-hoo” then maybe, just maybe, the story could have been great.
2 – Characters slightly developed.
Ironically, and as I have mentioned above, the most important character in the story, Eugene, is one of the least developed. Is this because we are supposed to relate to him through his family? Perhaps. Wolfe’s intent may have been to put his reader into Eugene’s shoes, by witnessing character interaction (mostly family) around us/him and allowing us to react as we will. If this is the intent then, for me, it failed. I wanted to understand Eugene. I wanted to connect with him, and grow with him – to learn about his childhood and how what happens to him in youth shapes the teenager who goes to State College, and the man who ultimately ends up studying at Harvard. But I couldn’t – Wolfe would not allow us to get close. There were rare moments of true emotion, like when Eugene’s young brother dies early in the story, or when that brother’s twin, Ben, dies later (I actually got teary-eyed here). The final few pages, too, were moving and beautiful, but they were so at odds with the rest of the book that I found it a struggle to appreciate any of it.
One character who did stand out, though, was Eliza, Eugene’s mother. She was a bully, a rascal, a money-grubbing monster. She is probably the least motherly mother-figure I have read in any book I can recall, to date. There is something fierce and inspirational about her, though. She is an absolute nut, for sure, but so is the entire Gant family – from head of house, down through the youngest child and back again. Without Eliza, though, this 500+ page novel would have been completely unbearable. She brought a sense of humor to the story; she was the recognizable “black sheep” family member– the eccentric who everyone likes to tease, to gang up on. She is the one who refuses to help anyone, who puts all the blame elsewhere and, yet, pulls through in the end. Thank goodness for what must have been an odd relationship between Wolfe and his mother (Freud, where are you?) because, had this been peachy-keen, the book would have gotten a resounding 1.0 out of 4.0 for me, I think.
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.
The one laudable aspect of this novel was its prose. Wolfe is an inexplicably beautiful writer. His style is fluid and old-fashioned (which is, yes, distracting at times). I recall writing down a few quotes/passages from this book over the past few weeks which, taken on their own, would likely make anyone want to rush out and get the book. Joke’s on them, of course, because, despite the awesome power that Wolfe has in elevating the English language to something almost god-like, it did not do enough for the story to make it edible. In fact, the beauty of the prose is in such contrast to the blunt, bare, and oftentimes crass nature of the plot, I teeter on wondering whether the prose does the story a disservice. I cannot help but think, though, that this is the one redeeming factor, over all. Certain scenes, moments, and descriptions were picturesquely beautiful – almost as if the text were a living, breathing thing, capable of steering our emotions, like a ship, through the choppy-waters of the story itself.
One further annoyance, however, was the repetitive use of certain words (like sardonic) throughout the book. It was almost as if, every few chapters, Wolfe went to a thesaurus to pick out a new word, then used it over and over again until he was sick of it, then back to the trusty thesaurus.
2 – Additional elements are present but do not develop the Story.
There are a variety of themes present in the novel, such as family, independence, mental health, alcoholism, and education. Many of these, like alcoholism, play a prominent role in the story and, while you are led to believe that there is a moral judgment being placed on something, or a didactic imperative about to be explored, the ball is ultimately dropped. Gant and Ben’s alcoholism, for instance, is repeatedly depicted and deplored; yet, much of the time, there is a jocularity to the finger-pointing sermonizing over sobriety and the dangers of abusing liquor. The family pretends to shun and despise Gant and Ben for their abuses, yet they tolerate it, they turn on one another for mentioning it, and one daughter, Helen, even sacrifices the chance for her own children and family by devoting all of her time and energy to caring for her alcoholic father. Even further, we are meant to believe, in the end, that Ben, the pitiable, worthless brother who never does anything with his life, and who pushes Eugene (nobly?) away from liquor and toward schooling, is somehow a guardian angel. He comes to Eugene as a vision, in the end, a specter of truth and earthly wisdom, when Eugene appears to be lost and wavers on the road toward or away from home. Education, too, is raised above all else, in one hand, and laughed at in the other. All the Gants praise Eugene for his intellectual talents and boast about him to family, friends, and neighbors but, really, their primary concern is wealth – what will Eugene, college graduate, be able to do now with his degree? How much will he make? When will we be able to stop supporting him and, instead have him begin sending money home to us? There is always a tongue-in-cheek double standard or hypocrisy to all that is “good.” Maybe this is the point, though: we all have our motives and, whatever truths we front to others, we always put self and the dollar first. If this is Wolfe’s purpose, then it is executed quite well.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult, Literary
Interest: American Literature, Southern fiction, Family, Coming-of-Age