POPPA JOHN by Larry Woiwode

POPPA JOHN

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Ned Daley, a Manhattan actor in his sixties, has for twelve years been ""Poppa John"" on a TV soap, a character of avuncular warmth and scriptural wisdom. But Finally he was killed off by the writers; and now, out of work (too identified with the Poppa John part to get another job), he faces a first Christmas without prospects of income, balanced precariously between his love for wife Celia and a counterweighting, life-long psychic scar (memory of the murder of his father, a crooked cop). On Christmas Eve, after stopping at the bank and withdrawing more for presents than is prudent, he walks the snowy city streets, stops in at a bar, is hit by that old family nightmare, goes drunkenly shopping in the Village, has a grotesquely distorted run-in with a young dancer, finally collapses, and must be hospitalized. Sounds like a Frank Capra-ish Christmas tearjerker? Yes, there's some resemblance. But sentiment is hardly what Woiwode is after here. You see, all that father imagery surrounding St.-Nick-ish Ned (and his day in purgatorial N.Y.) is leading up to an epiphany: Ned's realization that death, confusion, and pain all chute into ""the presence of the man of sorrows, acquainted with his grief, Christ as Lord."" This, then, is a Born-Again-Christian novella--and though Woiwode mostly keeps the message subtle (except for a Poppa John farewell cast-party which becomes an explicit Last Supper), the whole book is disturbingly infected with propagandizing attitudes. Television is seen as an anti-Christ, capable of invoking mental retardation and even suicide (according to one off-the-wall, if fascinating, dinner-party scene). There are capricious bigotries, both anti-Catholic (""irreproachable little nuns, all running around nowadays in designer clothes"") and anti-Semitic (""a Jewish vendor of pretzels was saying to a crony beside him, 'Boy did I rook him on that' ""). But even more dispiriting here than Woiwode's small-mindedness is the collapse of his narrative skill. Previously a writer of stirring, physically palpable prose, Woiwode (Beyond the Bedroom Wall) is now static and prolix, seemingly immobilized in an interior glue-pot as he telescopes everything into Poppa John's day of death-and-rebirth: ""Or worse, once outside the studios, Poppa John a species of parasite, feeding off his feelings and memory and reading and research and experience, with no perception of the limits of its host, and growing every day (a thrilling inner glimpse of Hydra-headed worms with multiple eyes circling with increasing speed across a tender section of his intestines to find a way out, causing a crazy-bone sensation in the pit of his stomach) with Poppa John's apparent need to placate or bring under control every person that came within his ken."" Sludgy prejudices, sludgier prose--an interminable short novel which, despite its clear spiritual intentions, must be seen as a dismaying mis-step by one of our most talented writers.

Pub Date: Nov. 16th, 1981
ISBN: 0374526737
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux