Smile Politely

Review: You Can’t Go Home Again

In order to be liked and admired as a smart-ass, one must put in the time and effort: Step up your vocabulary, read more than one subtitle at a time, pick an author to loathe, pick one to love. The intent of this column is to put you on that path and to help you avoid the bear traps in the ditch. Step One: Get a Library Card.

You Can’t Go Home Again

Weighing in at 720 pages, this posthumous doorstop by Thomas Wolfe took three renewals from the library to get through. By the last quarter-inch, I was no longer interested in any semblance of a continuous story line, just a flagging determination to finish what I’d begun two months prior.

Thomas Wolfe’s first two novels started out as grandiose manuscripts of soaring rhetoric with erratic structures. His early success was due in part to the skillful eye of renowned Scribner’s Sons’ editor Maxwell Perkins, the same man who handled Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Perkins managed to wrestle Wolfe’s epics down to manageable size and readability to great success. Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River were hailed as classics and their author, Wolfe, as the greatest author of the day.

He left Scribner’s and Perkins soon after, amid speculation that his books were written in collaboration with Perkins rather than by Wolfe alone. He signed a strict editorial contract with Edward Aswell of Harper & Bros. With the ink dry on the contract and an advance of $10,000 in his hand, Wolfe left New York for a tour of the West and left for Aswell a manuscript of such magnitude that it was ferried about in an 8ft-high packing crate. Then Wolfe died.

His final novel existed as scrawl in 35 notebooks, along with loose pages of outlines, story ideas, summaries and a play, plus all the scrap that Perkins had cut from earlier manuscripts. Over 5,000 pages in all. Aswell sifted through the mass of paper for three years. The books he managed to piece together were released as The Web and the Rock in 1939, You Can’t Go Home Again in 1940 and a collection of short stories, The Hills Beyond in 1941.

The Web and the Rock is another iteration of Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, though the protagonist is named George Webber instead of Eugene Gant. The young Webber wished to make it big in New York, so left his hometown, Libya Hill, in search of the higher ideal.

You Can’t Go Home Again finds Webber in New York. It is 1929 and George has finished writing a book that casts a stark light upon his hometown and the people in it. Before it is published, he must return home for the funeral of his Aunt Maw Joyner. Webber is aghast when he arrives to see the once sleepy community in the throes of a real estate boom, the lovely green hills and forests razed flat for stores and offices. There is an anxious feeling in the air, and it seems to have driven the townspeople mad with greed.

Interspersed among the completed chapters are Aswell’s italicized editor bridges. These act as 2-minute recaps, just in case you missed last week’s episode, and his attempt to pull the gorges between thoughts closer together.

Chapters 22-26 concern the aftermath of Webber’s book, Home to Our Mountains. He receives threats, rude phone calls and letters from the folks back home. This makes him feel guilty and ashamed, even more so once the bottom drops out of the stock market, leaving Libya Hill holding the bag. The real estate boom comes to a screeching halt, the bank fails and the Mayor commits suicide.

In chapters 32-44, Webber recedes from decent society. He spends his days writing in a small basement apartment and his nights roaming the city, observing those he encounters. A few hundred pages later, Webber leaves the US for London, where he plans to weave his notes into a manuscript. Later on he pops up in Hitler’s Germany for the Olympic games in Berlin. He’s in the woods. He’s up on a mountain. He’s in a shotgun shack shouting ‘How did I get here?’

Wolfe had an awkward way of writing character accents or vernacular. It comes off as incomprehensible and extremely hard to navigate, like hiking through a bog. Case in point: While in London, Webber hires a British domestic to keep house for him while he writes his manuscript.

Mrs. Purvis:
“They say, sir, that the bobby on duty just outside the palace
saw ’Im, and came up to ’Im and said, ‘Can I ’elp you, sir?’
But not ’Im! ’E wouldn’t be ’elped! ’E’s too proud, ’E is!
That’s the way ’E’s always been.”

One has to cut though a hanging jungle of apostrophes to figure out what the woman is driving at.

From what I’ve read about this novel, after I read the damned thing, it was more Aswell’s book than Wolfe’s. He took creative editing to a new level with The Web and the Rock, and made a Frankenstein’s Monster in You Can’t Go Home Again. It probably should have been edited further into a novella and two short stories.

The few coherent chapters strung together with Aswell’s notes are not enough to warrant a reading, seeing as how it is missing Wolfe’s original intent. It is an exercise in futility to read, as you do not even feel good about yourself for finishing it, just a bit dirty for reading Aswell’s botch of a job.

If you want to read Thomas Wolfe, try Look Homeward, Angel or Of Time and the River, the two books he was involved in completing.

Rating: 1 of 5

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