Subtlety and irony characterize newly published Thomas Wolfe novella

November 15, 1992|By Michael Harris | Michael Harris,Los Angeles Times

THE LOST BOY.

Thomas Wolfe.

University of North Carolina.

81 pages. $16.50.

In 1937, a year before he died, Thomas Wolfe wrote a novella based on the death of his brother, Grover, from typhoid fever in 1904. Grover then was 12 and Thomas, the youngest child, only 4. The absence of Grover -- a precociously grave and gentle boy, his mother's favorite -- left a void in the family that, for Wolfe, was haunted by faint, elusive memories.

The result was "The Lost Boy," a continuation of the Gant family saga that began with "Look Homeward, Angel." An abridged version appeared in Redbook magazine in 1937, but this is the first publication of the full novella. Readers who think of Wolfe as the author of raw slabs of prose that his editors had to cut and polish into books may be surprised by its subtlety and irony. At the least, it's a painless reintroduction to his work.

First the subtlety: Wolfe uses four points of view, four distinct voices, moving ahead in time so that Grover gradually fades and is "lost" in the telling. We begin inside the boy's mind. Grover, savoring his life in small-town North Carolina, is unjustly accused of stealing; this damages his spirit and seems like a foretaste of death. His mother relives the family's train trip to the World's Fair in St. Louis, where Grover took ill. His sister, in a stream-of-consciousness monologue years later, tries to assemble what little she can recall of Grover into a meaningful picture. Finally, Wolfe himself (or Eugene Gant) revisits the rooming house where Grover died, in an effort to summon back . . . anything.

Wolfe has been out of fashion for a long time now. The ruling dialect of modern American fiction is hard-boiled and understated, and he was an overwriter and a gusher. Not much happens in his novels, for all their energy and bulk. He just describes things, over and over. This came from growing up in beautiful country where not much did happen. The rare events -- such as Grover's death -- became static objects of contemplation, as did landscapes, cityscapes and people. In Wolfe's world, only time moved. And to show it moving, he had to heat the surface of his world with rhetoric. The paradox is that it's in the shorter forms, as here, that we see time's effects most clearly.

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