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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Foggy ruins of time: Return to the home town in The House of Breath

It's very difficult to discern or figure out exactly who the narrator is in William Goyen's 1950 The House of Breath - at times I have been thinking he's one of the children in the impoverished E. Texas town of Charity, in the Ganchion (?) family - but which child exactly I'm not sure. At other times the narrator seems to be the abstract spirit of the town of Charity, or of the small river that runs through it, once (in narrator's childhood) so pure and undisturbed now polluted by the runoff from the oil fields that have taken over the town and the whole E Texas economy, for better (for some) or worse (for many). And does it matter precisely who's narrating this tale? The key is the repetition of certain themes true in this novel and in so many American sagas: the impoverished rural family with its tortured history of violence and failure, the children yearning - each in his or her own way - for a better life, which in this novel they attain not by education or great skill or drive but simply by leaving town, suitcase in hand, seeking their fortune on the road or in a big city, Dallas or Houston usually. And they all fail miserably - the beautiful "Swimma" (Sue Emma) who goes through a series of bad marriages, gives birth to short-lived, severely deformed children, ages badly; the son (Christy?) humiliated and bullied as an effeminate child, runs off with the circus of all things and on to an unhappy life as a gay adult man, the sickly one who stays home and dies young, the elderly who age and go blind and fall to ruin just like the family house itself (this probably the most Faulknerian touch), and behind this lurks the elusive narrator who believes he has failed at life and yearns for home, which is out of reach and is not the edenic playing fields that he remembers or imagines. This novel is about prodigal sons (and daughters) who return home but not as returning heroes - rather, as ruined travelers looking for comfort and solace and finding that their homeland is has, like them, been ruined by time.

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