Novelist Wolfe (The Parrot Trainer, 2003, etc.) recalls a childhood growing up poor in Colorado and Montana during the 1940s and ’50s, a time when he was deeply unhappy but fully occupied.
The first thing he remembers is living rather high on the hog in Colorado. His father was chief physician at Woodman, a tuberculosis sanatorium; his mother was its chief administrator. Their relationship was unfulfilling, so there was always tension in the Wolfe household. The strain prompted their son to search the Woodman grounds for secrets behind the veil of everyday life, sometimes making a real discovery (the stairwell hidden by ferns that led to an underground tunnel) and sometimes an imaginary one (the “secret room” that he dreamed he found behind his bedroom wall). Penicillin put an end to the sanatorium, and the family took a financial plunge. Wolfe, his mentally challenged sister and his mother moved into a tent in the country. His father, now a morphine addict and child-beater, lived in town. With easy poise and an artisan’s exactitude, Wolfe explains that he found grace and acceptance in the outdoors, escaping “the usual fighting and fucking scenario that played out in the farmhouse” back home with Mom and his new stepdad. Outside, he found further opportunities to see behind the veil, into the mystery of his own universe: on skis, plunging through a blinding dazzle of powder or voyaging atop his horse. To get away from her abusive second husband, Mom took them to Montana, even though “Missoula in the 1950s was not a great place for adult misfits.” Later, Wolfe took work as a logger and a copper-miner; about each trade he spins stories both magic and real. Whatever the subject, the author’s underlying topic is “the play of things, [the] stuff that constantly glittered and zinged around in my head.”
A unique vision, presented in rough-hewn prose.