THE RUNAWAY SOUL by Harold Brodkey
Kirkus Star


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Brodkey's long, long, long-awaited first novel that could not possibly live up to expectations--and yet, largely, does. One must forgive Brodkey or oneself for not being able to take in every page of this 800-page novel with equal thirst. Tedious passages, reread later, spring to life--and some remain tiresome (for now). The story focuses on the childhood, youth, and first marriage (not in that order!) of Wiley Silenowicz, a Missouri genius, and the role of his hideously vile-tempered sister Nonie as a shadow in all people Wiley meets or marries. Earlier sketches seen in Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (1988) are mere charcoal prefigurings of what appears here--and seem pared and objective set beside the bathyspheric subjectivity of the novel. The plot?--a psychic web of small electrical events feeding and racing everywhere, and never stated formally. Nothing happens now: every action arrives through a veil, often at merciless length. Wiley, at two, has been adopted by S.L. and Lila of St. Louis, who have a blood-daughter, Nonie, 11 years older than Wiley. Nonie, who must give pain to be alive, rules the roost, and we follow her demonic life until her death by fire in her early 40s (Wiley tells this story, a hugely askew elegy, nearly 20 years after her death). Events include baby sensations as S.L. lifts up Wiley and walks about filling him with fatherly advice; Lila's fabulous car accident as she forgetfully drives her Buick into a bus, flees on three-inch heels wearing a fox neckpiece; masturbation solo and in tandem; vast sex scenes, one at 14, his first coupling (almost), which is forever interrupted by Nonie, and a later sexfest with his deliberately inorgasmic wife Ora; trips with a homosexual older cousin; and separate death-scenes for S.L. and Lila, which spread all over the novel. Forget the Proust comparison. Brodkey is himself, and many pages here have the deep-rolling profound thrust, painterly originality, and lightning-bolt flash of great art. But many readers will fade early.

Pub Date: Nov. 14th, 1991
Page count: 800pp
Publisher: "Farrar, Straus & Giroux"