My other seminal text was a thick, overwrought novel I found around the same time, on an afternoon when I was scanning the recent returns. If by now I was a kid who lived to read, I was still beholden to the action of the pageto plot-driven stories more full-throttle than real life ever was. What I hadn't yet grasped was that prose for its own sake, grown-up prose, could be so transporting as to exist beyond linear narrative in a corridor of its own making. One might call this the beginning of a modernist sensibility; I think, though, that I was simply ready to be a witness to beautythat my brain was waking up to the world's possibilities, and they came to me by way of fiction. The book I held in my hands that day was a worn hardback copy of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, and I didn't get beyond the first page, because what I saw there so humbled and elated me that I could read no further. "Each of us is all the sums he has not counted," Wolfe had written in his second paragraph. "Subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas."
That I had just been given the confluence of time, space, and metaphora rough abstract for human consciousnesswas clearly way beyond my comprehension. What I knew was that someone, in some other time and place, had made sense of the largeness of life and the dark reaches I felt so privately within my soul, and that this stranger had found out where I washe had said so, right there, with "yesterday in Texas." This seemed to me a secret contract between writer and reader, a grail beyond any promises I had heard about in school or church. I went home and kept the revelation to myself, sensing that I would carry the elixirgreat comfort and petition boththrough all my days.
Part of what I was falling for, beyond all that swoony prose, was the author's own apologia for leaving. In the rich and gusty self-portrait that was Eugene Gant, Wolfe had given us one of the early Southern-boy migration storiesa prodigal son escaping the madness of Dixie, catapulted by ego and estrangement toward the distant North. This propulsion, this outward imperative, is part of America's founding story, in history and in myth, and I must have read a dozen versions of it by the time I actually qualified for those shelves in Adult Fiction. A tattered trail of protagonists, most of them alienated and most of them male, would wend their way through my early literary consciousness: Binx Bolling, the perpetual dreamer of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer; the young men of Larry McMurtry's early Texas novels, leaving Cheyenne even if they had to crawl; Faulkner's Quentin, who journeyed so thoroughly into my heart over the years that he became my Quentin. That so many of these itinerant figures were men did not occur to me; I think I was searching for a flight far reaching or victorious, however torn asunder the heart that had launched it. The few female protagonists I came across had a tendency to stay put. Should they dare to venture beyond the borders of propriety or domesticity, they often suffered misery, ostracism, or untoward death. I discovered the full spectrum of this punishment for roaming when I got to James's Isabel Archer and other female innocents abroad; for now, as I veered my own boat into the chop of adolescence, I aligned myself with the guys who had hit the road.
Excerpted from A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell Copyright © 2006 by Gail Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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