Monday, September 14, 2009

Thomas Wolfe and Pat Conroy

Much of the time I make my reading coincide with travel I’ll be doing or that I’m just back from, and movies or books about to be released. I read Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice immediately after my return from Italy a few years ago. I read Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor on my trip to Savannah earlier this year and just before a trip to her farm, Andalusia. Recently, I read Devil in the White City during my trip to Chicago.

However, I’ve just recently enjoyed a serendipitous combination of two writers, a trip and a book release. It has all fit so nicely together and I didn’t even plan it!

I read Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides two summers ago. When I began hearing buzz about his latest novel, South of Broad (I’ve read numerous reviews of South of Broad and two of the magazines I subscribe to, Garden & Gun and Southern Living, have also promoted the highly anticipated novel.), I promptly got on the waiting list for it at the library (I’m currently number 142 in line – it will be a while) and started reading Beach Music which as it turns out, is the most perfectly crafted novel that I can remember reading in a very long time. Beach Music is 800 pages long. Even though I read all the time, it took me a few weeks to get through it. I was about a third of the way through when I camped over Labor Day weekend near Asheville, N.C., hometown of Thomas Wolfe. All of it fit together so nicely, and I was pleased to know that Thomas Wolfe is one of Conroy’s favorite writers. Even Jack McCall, the main character in Beach Music sings Wolfe’s praises when he says,

“Taking out Look Homeward, Angel, I read the magnificent first page and remembered when I had been a sixteen-year-old boy and those same words had set me ablaze with the sheer inhuman beauty of language as a cry for mercy, incantation, and a great river roaring through the darkness. ‘Hello, Eugene. Hello, Ben Gant,’ I said quietly, for I knew these characters as well as I knew anyone in the world. Literature was where the world made sense to me.”

I read Look Homeward, Angel about 10 years ago, but it was as though I had just read it before visiting the Old Kentucky Home, the Asheville boarding house where Tom, the youngest of eight children, was raised by his mother, Julia, a businesswoman far ahead of her time. Scenes that I remembered reading in Look Homeward, Angel came to life for me during the tour of the 29-room house (all but just a handful were bedrooms for the boarders). The tour guide did a wonderful job of telling all about Tom’s childhood there (he based much of Look Homeward, Angel on growing up in the boarding house and his college years at the University of North Carolina). The tour guide balanced stories of Tom and his family with tidbits about what life was like in a Southern boardinghouse. It was really fascinating. Photos inside were permitted, so I took full advantage both there and outside the house.

52 North Market Street, Asheville

A pair of Tom's shoes have been bronzed and are between the house and the street.

Tom's favorite place to sleep at the Old Kentucky Home, the upstairs sleeping porch.

The bed where Tom and his seven brothers and sisters were all born to Julia.

The dining room, which was heavily damaged in a fire in 1998.

I bought another of Wolfe’s famous novels, You Can’t Go Home Again, in the gift shop. I’m looking forward to reading it just as much as I’m looking forward to getting my turn with a copy of South of Broad from the library (if I bought every book I wanted to read, I’d be more than broke). I’m particularly excited to read it as Charleston, S.C. is one of my favorite places in the whole world. Here is a picture taken by me from a boat in the Charleston Harbor a few summers ago.

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