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Harold Brodkey: The Runaway Soul

Though Brodkey was known as a short story writer, this novel was touted throughout the eighties as the next Great American Novel. It was many year in the making, it was going to be x thousand pages long, it was going to be called A Party of Animals, it was huge, it was wonderful. And then it was published. It turned out to be huge, all right. (My hardback first edition has 835 pages.) It told the story of Wiley Silenowicz, an adopted Jewish boy who lived with his adoptive parents and their daughter. But, instead of dealing with the great issues of life, like the other big novelists of the time – Pynchon, DeLillo, McElroy and Co. – it dealt with Wiley’s emotional life. Nothing wrong with that, except it was over-written, a bit like Portnoy’s Complaint on speed but without the wit, overtold, overdone, over-everything. Some people may like stories of nice Jewish boys masturbating and having sex (for pages and pages) but we have seen it all and read it all before in Roth and, frankly, it wasn’t much fun then. Some of the chapter titles give the game away – The Masturbation, I Move Toward (sic) the Bathroom and On Almost Getting Laid. Of course, we are meant to identify with Wiley and sympathise with his problems of growing up, his problems with his sister, his problem of being adopted and, of course, his problems with sex. But we don’t. He is not an attractive person, very different from Alex Portnoy who has charm and wit. Of course, Brodkey’s sentences don’t help. They are long-winded, stuffed with adjectives and adverbs which seem to add little, using childish expressions, replete with ellipses, italics, capitals and other stylistic annoyances and never seeming to go anywhere.

Having said that, and despite the fact that many critics shared my views and the book is now out of print (though readily available for a small price – I even found an autographed one for $10), there have been a few, very few, who have praised the novel, comparing it, ludicrously, to À la recherche du temps perdu! But 835 pages is a lot of pages to read for something that is, in my view, so overdone.

Publishing history

First published 1991 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux