WILL'S BOY: A Memoir by Wright Morris
Kirkus Star

WILL'S BOY: A Memoir

Email this review


Morris' memoir of his first 20 years runs along the course of his fiction like a switchy tributary stream. Acknowledgment of this comes in the form of interspersed excerpts from his novels--The Works of Love, My Uncle Dudley, One Day, The Man Who Was There--which crystallize into imagery some of the recountings here; and there is also, especially in the sections about his early childhood, an ongoing meditation upon whether it is the writing of a life that Morris is remembering or the remembrances themselves that he's simply recording. His mother died six days after giving birth to Wright in 1910: ""Had Grace Osborn lived, my compass would have been set on a different course, and my sails full of more than the winds of fiction. Am I to register that as a child's loss, or a man's gain?"" Wright's father, Will, a railroad clerk in Omaha, marries again-a young woman named Gertrude--but doesn't keep his new wife for long. And he's as unsuccessful in his serial egg-and-chicken businesses; life for him is a succession of bounced checks, lame schemes, and women seduced behind the cloak of looking for a new mother for ""the boy."" Until he's ten or so, Wright goes along serenely: ""The long, long thoughts of childhood approximate dreaming in the way they hover between waking and sleeping. The voice the child attends to is the one that speaks without the need of an answer--the voice of fire, of thunder, of wind, rain and silence""--a clue to the carried-over capacity for astonishment, the intimacy with phenomena, in Morris' fiction. But dislocation--moves to Chicago, California, back to Chicago--lets him see ne'er-dowell Will in an increasingly clear light. Working at the YMCA after school, Wright exhibits a straightforwardness of character that makes him a good candidate for religion--but it isn't to be: there's also an optimistic adventurousness to him. A funny chapter describes a Chicago-to-California jitney scheme that Will inaugurates, with Wright as the driver (in a series of hopeless cars); another, precociously insightful, recounts a stint as a teenager on Uncle Dwight's parched Texas farm. About Morris' splendid economy of prose, little need be added: ""My uncle was a lean wiry man who just naturally stood with his legs flexed, as if he meant to hop. . . I followed him out in the yard, where the crack of dawn was right there on the horizon like a knife slit, then we carried between us a milk can full of kerosene to the John Deere tractor."" Personally uncomplaining (almost to the point of evasion) yet informed by disappointment, the memoir is incomplete but somehow never teasing, upright but not mythic, aware but not obsessed. It's a singular little book.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1981
Publisher: Harper & Row