Every five years or so, I pick up Thomas Wolfe again…no, not that Tom Wolfe, the other Tom Wolfe, the one no one remembers or reads anymore. It takes that long between reads because, well, he’s not exactly easy going. “Turgid” would be a good one-word description (funny, same has been said about me); ‘sledgehammer stream-of-conscience craziness’ would be a little more accurate, and I usually end up with a headache after about twenty pages of his. But there’s something about the guy, stalking along the streets of New York like a mad prophet with reams of mad writing falling off his desk while Max Perkins blinks and goes, “Somewhere in here is a novel.” Those were the best years of American literature, when the writing was more important than the sales. And the author.
But I guess my main draw towards Wolfe is his attempt to explain the southerner. Now, I am not a southerner. I lived in Oklahoma and Alabama and Texas and Florida at various times in my life, but also in New Jersey and New York and Illinois. I’m as much a northerner as southern: more accurately, a northeasterner, since I currently hover near the Mason-Dixon line. Wolfe was definitely a southerner, but one who yearned for the north, as per this passage from Of Time and the River:
It was his train and it had come to take him to that strange and secret heart of the great North that he had never known, but whose austere and lonely image, whose frozen heat and glacial fire, and dark stern beauty had blazed in his vision since he was a child. For he had dreamed and hungered for the proud unknown North with that wild ecstasy, that intolerable and wordless joy of longing and desire, which only a Southerner can feel. Page 23 of the Scribner’s 1935 edition, which I proudly own.
Now, I can safely say that I never “dreamed and hungered for the proud unknown North” while I was living in Alabama. Smack in the middle of my freshman year, though, I ended up there: in New Jersey, of all places. Imagine, a bell-bottom wearing, BCG’s-sporting nerd walking into that predominately black high school and saying, in my best LA (lower Alabama) drawl, “Hey, y’all!” No, I wasn’t murdered. In fact, I had a rather good time in high school, and still count those years as some of my best. But I was locked between two camps, without commitment to either.
And it shows. Sometimes, I get an urge to go back to Alabama, maybe see if my old house is available, buy it, live there. Then, I come to my senses. Later, thoughts spin towards New Jersey: maybe I should head back there, find old friends, start some crap back up. Then I REALLY come to my senses and stay here, in Virginia, which, more and more, is a hybrid of north and south.
See, you can’t go home again. Especially if you don’t know where home is.