Drive Yourself Crazy with Thomas Wolfe

categories: Reading Under the Influence


If a young person were to come to me and sit at my knee and say, “Old Professor Gessner, you seem so wise. (Here I would nod.)  Could you tell me the best book for me to read if I want to drive myself insane with ambition and dreams of glory?”  I would reply: “Yes, son/young lady.  I recommend that you run out and buy a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and a River.  That will do the trick.”

And it will, it will!

I should admit right now that this is really an advertisement of sorts.  Here at Bill and Dave’s we have sworn off real ads, (though Pepsi has been pretty persistent.)  But this is an ad for a very worthy product—this month’s issue of the Oxford American!  The OA has lots of great stuff and this issue includes pieces by my colleague Clyde Edgerton and my former student, the talented Erin Sroka, who has a great and funny piece on bingo halls.  And of course I probably wouldn’t be typing this or know about the issue if it did not include a piece by ME.  Here is how that piece begins:

“Best Southern Novel for Enflaming Ambition in the Young

For me it was a book like a bomb.  Or rather it was a book like a lit fuse and my brain was the bomb.  Perhaps there should be warning labels on books for teenagers.  Had there been one specifically designed for me on the cover of Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, it would have read:  WARNING: This book will fill you with an unquenchable thirst for literary glory, will render unrealistic all your expectations, will destroy forever your hopes of pursuing a normal career.

I was a Northern boy whose family had moved to North Carolina, and I felt above all things Southern, except for the small fact that the book that had infiltrated my brain was written by someone from my new home state.  This was back before I had stories to tell.  But if I didn’t have stories, I had the growing idea that telling stories would win me fortune and fame.  Especially fame. To fill the mind of others and never be forgotten. This was the dream of the young Eugene Gant, Wolfe’s protagonist, who lived inside an adolescent’s vision of adolescence, always being “seized by mad furies” and plunged into abyss-like depressions before inevitably rising again to stand, glorious and world-conquering, astride the earth.  And here was the punchline: Gant would conquer the world, not with guns or money, but with pens and books!”

So if you like this sort of thing (and who doesn’t) please run out right now and buy a copy of the Oxford American.  (I’m not sure if you can tell but I have just had my third beer—my new nightly limit—as I type this.)   I’m pretty sure they sell Oxford Americans t Barnes and Nobles, which is the only bookstore left in North America.

Oh, and the OA also includes pieces by great writers like George Singleton and my good once-a-year (AWP) friend, Beth Ann Fennelly.  Her piece is an Ode to Ten Sexy Southern Books and, unlike my piece, they actually have a link to it , maybe because she is prettier and more famous than I am.   But now that I look I see that they also have a link to UNCW alum Brad Land’s piece, an “Ode to a Giant Indulgent Day-Glo contradiction” and Brad is not prettier than I am.

P.S. Recently, when I was teaching nature (writing) camp, I heard a talented, young writer read a piece on the difficulties of living wild (hiking/camping et)  when you were a new parent.   I said “You should read Beth Ann’s work. …”  Can anyone suggest the best book for this?

  1. Deirdra Baldwin writes:

    Why is no one bringing up the virtues of Balzac’s Cousin Betty? Several thick and intricate novels take place in a single encounter between the characters. The quality of mercy is never strained, because it is French. As for the characters, theirs is a grueling and gruesome world much like our own. And with plenty of illustrations, some of which have been removed by previous readers who obviously needed to chew on them, the way to understanding is filled with sign posts. Only Helen Mirren could do justice to the role of the put upon wife, whose lecherous husband has bankrupted the family. I don’t know who could play Hulot, the villainous and successfully duped lecher, but he is refreshingly undefended. But I say screenwriters, this is a live one and in the public domaine. As for the talented sculptor, I’m going to let my betters cast this one.James Franco would do. Do you think that his film One Hundred and Twenty Seven Hours was short shrifted by the fact that Dateline told the entire story of the ordeal on location?

  2. Bill Roorbach writes:

    You know, I own a couple of Thomas Wolfe novels in nice editions I bought when I was still gripped by bibliomania in the years after college. I wanted to love him, partly because of something I’d read about him going to New York with his manuscript in a trunk–3000 loose pages. Very, very romantic. But I never could get past about page 27 or so in either Look Homeward Angel or Of Time and My Liver, or whatever it’s called. Can’t quite say why… I vow to try again one day… I did read Herman Wouk’s Youngblood Hawke, which is based on Thomas Wolfe’s life, and really juicy. I remember Youngblood going to New York with his huge manuscript and wearing a brown suit. Apparently, one does not wear a brown suit to New York. So I’ve been careful not to own one, or any suit in fact.

    • Deirdra Baldwin writes:

      Did he write Look Back in Anger? I had a friend who was an actor and very influenced by that book, that and of course, Zoo Story. He ended up kidnapping his wife after they separated. The rest didn’t go too well.

  3. Tommy writes:

    “…the only bookstore left in North America.” – good one!

  4. Steven Stafford writes:

    I just copped Of Time… (for free on Project Gutenberg Australia–illegal, I know. Don’t tell anyone.) I’ll let ya know what happens to me. Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes…