Another new and semi-regular feature I’d like to introduce here on First Person Plural is “Whatever happened to?” In this feature, we will publish a post on a writer who once was a name but who now has (or seems to have) fallen by the wayside. It happens. Remember Winston Churchill? No, not that Winston Churchill. The other one. The famous American author, a bestseller in his day? I bet you didn’t. Wikipedia doesn’t know him, which practically means he didn’t exist. But in his time he was so big that the Winston Churchill of England, the one everyone remembers, asked him to change his name. His response? You change your name–I’m bigger than you.
Anyway, Larry Woiwode. Woiwode (his surname is pronounced WHY-woody, according to this New York Times article that Leslie Pietrzyk sent me after reading this post–thanks Leslie!) is a North Dakotan who has written eight novels, a book of poetry, and a bunch of essays. His Wikipedia page is rinky dink, and that’s both unfortunate and unsurprising given that he’s fallen off the radar. Which is exactly why he’s the subject of this post. That Wikipedia site deserves to be longer.
I first came across the work of Larry Woiwode as a graduate student in Kansas. The book was a trim collection of stories called Silent Passengers. The first story, “Wanting an Orange,” is a meditation on the joys of eating oranges. John McPhee’s brilliant history of the orange, Oranges, is at 152 pages a monstrous tome by comparison. As someone who begins each day with a tall glass of OJ, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the richness of pleasure I gain from language like this, from “Wanting an Orange”:
Each one, stripped of its protective tissue, as vivid against the purple as a pebbled sun, encouraged you to envision a whole pyramid of them in a bowl on the dining-room table, glowing in the light, as if radiating the warmth that arrived through the windows from the real winter sun.
All the stories in this collection are meditative in the sense that there’s a lot of meat on the bone of each sentence. These are not stories that are stripped bare of muscle: these are stories with an extra layer of muscle. Take “A Necessary Nap” as an example. In this story a father comes to the understanding that he’s been “trying to supplant his own son.” His son is 4 years old. In the movement towards the story’s revelation we discover that the family has moved to a remote eastern Montana farm and the boy, Will, has difficulty sleeping; he’s absorbing his parents anxieties. Here the boy tries to sleep as the father watches: “He stares into Will’s eyes, past irises of interleaved silver and blue, and tries to smile, fighting back an irrational fear that the boy is possessed.” The “irises of interleaved silver and blue” is particularly striking, but even in this small passage we gain an inkling of where the story is going. This is a father who cannot understand his son, and therefore fears him in some way.
Woiwode published his first novel at age 28, What I’m Going to Do, I think, and it always humbles me to read of people who’ve published books when they were younger than I currently am. His Beyond the Bedroom Wall, a real sizzler of a novel, big and fat, sold, according to his Wikipedia site, over 2,000,000 copies! On this Amazon page you can see his books.
Yet few people have ever heard of him. Most recently, in February 2008, Counterpoint published his memoir, A Step from Death, which Publishers Weekly gave a Starred Review. Not bad, not bad. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list.
My suggestion is for you to pick up Silent Passengers, and if that appeals to you, ride on to the next of his books. He’s one not to be missed.
Do you know of a writer who has slipped under the radar? Do you want to reintroduce him or her to the world? Let me know.