ARCADIO by William Goyen


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Stories within stories, picaresque and mythic yet starkly earthbound too: the autobiography of an East Texas hermaphrodite--who chants his short, dense tale in the lyrical/grotesque prose-poetry for which Goyen (The House of Breath; Come, The Restorer) is justly renowned. After a framing prologue, in which the author introduces Arcadio as a vision that long ago came to his dying uncle, we hear the voice of Arcadio himself, now old, recalling his fife. ""Come under the trestle and listen if you wan to, in the shade of the morning glory vine in the morning, God knows how it blooms so fresh without no water; or go on if you wan to."" Arcadio remembers his childhood in a Memphis whorehouse--deserted by sluttish Mexican mother Chupa, abused by drunken white father Hombre, turned into an all-purpose, sex-addicted prostitute: ""In me Satanas put on one body the two biggest troublemakers ever created from flesh onto one body and give that one person the torments of the whole human race, man and woman, all in one. Tis me. Arcadio. You wan hear."" He tells of running off to join a freak-show, of a brief reunion with long-lost Chupa (""I wanted to choke my mother and wanted to he on her breast"")--who reveals the existence of Arcadio's half-brother Tomasso, child of ""a hot young Jew"" whom Chupa killed in a jealous rage. So, when Chupa deserts him again, Arcadio escapes from the show and goes searching for Tomasso: he magically does find him, as well as Tomasso's beloved friend Hondo (who has his own doomed quest); but sweet-singer Tomasso will die in Arcadio's arms, of ""hunger"" even though he has been eating. And finally, after a stint in the Missoua Jail, Arcadio will go on searching for his father Hombre--only to find him legless (""Told me that he fell on the rayroad and train run over his legs but I believe it twas a woman got his legs""), carrying him to death in a Virgilesque canto: ""I walked out of town with my father on my back, and the knobs of his stump knees grinded into my ribs. Don't grab so hard I can't breathe for God's sake, I choked out, let loose of me a little, old fucker, old member-cursed Hombre, old prisoner, Papá."" Strange, forbidding fiction, and not completely successful in addressing the biggest questions (""who are we, what is life why are we all here where is God?"") through a hermaphrodite's lament--but genuinely poetic, with musical and comedic flights as well as moments of harrowing despair.

Pub Date: Sept. 26th, 1983
Publisher: Potter--dist. by Crown