By Larry Woiwode
Review Author: Harold Fickett
Larry Woiwode has written three novels. His first, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, won the William Faulkner Foundation Award. Beyond the Bedroom Wall, his second, tells of the life of a Midwestern family through several generations, and in its sustained lyricism stands as the performance of a writer who must certainly be one of the best of his generation. It was nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Shortly after he completed work on Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Woiwode became a professing Christian. The interval between the publication of his second novel and his third (Poppa John) amounts to six years, and so his readership has been waiting to see how his faith would affect his fiction.
Evidence of a new direction in his life and thought, Poppa John (originally published in hardback by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) happily preserves the virtues of Woiwode’s previous novels. Woiwode is simply a master prose stylist, following Joyce in bringing into prose the traits of poetry, a precise diction, an emphasis on sound and rhythm, a certain amount of compression, and imagery which serve description and thematic concerns at once.
The novel’s action takes place mostly on December 23, a day into which the author telescopes the whole of the protagonist’s life, challenging the reader to understand how its constituent elements combine and result in the disintegration and renewal of the man at day’s end.
Poppa John focuses on Ned Daley, an aging actor, who for the past 12 years has been “Poppa John” on a daily TV soap opera. The role was a compound of Ned’s memories of his grandfather (a Protestant minister) and characteristics taken from Falstaff.
Ned constructs Poppa John partially out of the memories of his grandfather, most particularly his habit of quoting the Bible. In order to keep his character and his quotations fresh, Ned begins studying the Bible. Professional necessity leads to curiosity, then absorbing interest. The role takes over his life, so much so that even his wife calls him by his character’s name, and he remains “in character” whether on the set or walking down the street or visiting friends. He has not lost touch with reality; he finds Poppa John a better person to be.
Poppa John is menaced, however, by episodes of acute anxiety, the worst of which occurs on the day of the novel’s main action. These derive ostensibly from Ned’s memory of the night his father was killed. Ned used to stoke the furnace of the building in which his family lived, and he was in the basement the night of the murder. He saw someone’s eye through a crack in the doorway, and heard strange noises that night, but he was too afraid to call for help or interfere with the murder himself. Even though he was only 11 at the time, he cannot rid himself of guilt, nor the distorted face of his father.
His study of the Scripture, however, helps him to see our asinine age for what it is; he dryly summarizes its creed: “Please feel free to have the freedom to do whatever in your life you feel you must of necessity do to remain free.” And in taking on his grandfather’s personality, he becomes a man of integrity and strength, who stands in utter contrast to the callow fellows, represented most especially by Ned’s young agent, who run today’s world. Poppa John’s viewers understand this, and make him the most popular man on television; his TV death attracts a viewing audience greater than John Kennedy’s funeral.
If not in God’s name, but that of himself and the TV audience, he has been enacting a Passion. The source of his popularity, and the role into which Ned has fallen, derive from nothing less, finally, than the Incarnation. Poppa John has done this mostly unwittingly, but circumstances and his public make him understand the extent of his presumption.
But Poppa John cannot rise again. Like the actor who played Superman on the TV serial (who committed suicide afterwards), Poppa John has been unalterably typecast; his very popularity precludes his working in other roles.
Unemployed, we meet him on this December 23 suffering from a deep depression. His finances have bottomed out. Even so, he takes his wife, Celia, to the bank and withdraws enough money for them to go on separate shopping trips; Poppa John wanders, beset by anxiety, through the labyrinth of New York, in which he discovers the truth of his fictional and real lives. This “double-born” man, this man “halved” by anxiety, achieves the synthesis, the conversion, made possible by the collision of what he would be, his image, and what he is with the true Incarnation of that image.
Woiwode spends a part of the novel’s space making sure the reader understands how this false savior, Poppa John, is of a piece with our world. The medium on which he appears is as substanceless as he; indeed, Woiwode indicts TV for helping steal the soul from modern civilization.
But two things prevent Poppa John from living in his pseudo-christological cocoon. His failure at 11 to rescue his father, to save him, proclaims (as does the popularity of Poppa John) that we cannot get our need for saviors out of our minds, no matter how “reasonable” the contemporary world wants us to be. We are made that way. We expect our world to contain grace, and we look for its fulfillment. When we do not know the true Christ, we require ourselves to be our own saviors, to make ourselves free (as in the satiric creed); and the result is guilt, depression, and anxiety; the expense of maintaining our own illusions of godliness must finally crush our spirits or turn us back to God. Poppa John’s anxiety thus becomes a means by which he understands the nature of his spiritual condition: his affliction is really a cure in the disguise of pain.
Other characters in the novel become the final means by which Poppa John gives up his role. Early on in the book’s progress, a young woman wants to confide in Poppa John about her divorce. He runs away from her, quickly — Poppa John has often had to dissuade people from thinking of him as a savior.
At the bank again (the “cathedral” of this world), collapsing from his alcoholic wanderings and the crucifying stress of the day, Poppa John, hearing the carol “Joy to the World,” finally abandons his presumptuous image. He understands that, “All there is to do is give up and admit you’re not free.” The following moments of conversion have a hallucinatory and apocalyptic cast which convey the reality of the supernatural in this world.
When Ned awakes again, it is Christmas day, and Christ has been born indeed.
Poppa John reflects the glory of the Lord, and in that it will be a tabernacle of grace to its readers.
©1983 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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