THE NEUMILLER STORIES
By Larry Woiwode
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
289 pages, $18.95
LARRY WOIWODE IS one of the enigmas of our literature. In 1969, while still in his 20s, he burst into American literature with "What I'm Going to Do, I Think," a novel about a newly married couple struggling, and failing, to adjust to life together in a lakeside cabin in Michigan. The book heralded the appearance of a writer who had special insight into the emotional briar patch of a spoiled marriage, and commanded an idiom that could portray the insanity that closes in around failing relationships while being itself watchful and disengaged.
For some readers, this debut suggested the young Hemingway.
Woiwode followed that book with the 619-page "Beyond the Bedroom Wall" (1975), which annealed his reputation. Subtitled "A Family Album," it was an old-fashioned family saga, tracing the destiny of four generations of Neumillers from the plains of North Dakota to the towns of Illinois and the streets of Greenwich Village.
Critics took notice: Novelist Anne Tyler remarked on its "sense of density and abundance"; John Gardner said, "Nothing more beautiful and moving has been written in years."
Where does a writer go from there? Customarily downhill, as the lecture circuit, the writing program, the summer seminar, the journals and the reading public draw him away from his typewriter. He gives in to pressures, juggles invitations and uses his time more "efficiently"; that is, he writes faster.
Something like that happened to Woiwode, and it became apparent in his next two novels: "Poppa John" (1981) and "Born Brothers" (1988), in which his firmness began to liquefy. In "Born Brothers," Woiwode returned to his emotional home turf, the Neumiller clan, to trace the latter-day destinies of Charles and Jerome, fourth-generation Neumillers, through the downward spiral of their brotherhood, as Jerome becomes a doctor while Charles declines into a delirium of guilt and alcohol.
Great first books are often a curse for a writer who has told his story and then struggles for years afterward to find a new center of equilibrium and a new story. Woiwode's strategy for the moment has been to republish a brace of early short stories that had gone into the writing of "Beyond the Bedroom Wall" and append to them three more recent tales of the decline and fall of the Neumiller clan. Of the 13 stories in "The Neumiller Stories," 10 were written between 1964 and 1972.
"The Neumiller Stories" are not a chronology of the Neumiller clan but a collection of discrete windows on their lives. All are descendants of the patriarch Otto Neumiller, who came to America from Germany in 1881 and homesteaded a barren piece of ground in North Dakota. His son, Charles, a carpenter, begets a son, Martin, who becomes a schoolteacher in North Dakota and later a carpenter himself in Illinois.
It is around Martin's family and his children, Jerome, Charles, Tim, Marie and Susan, that most of the stories revolve, though in one touching flashback we witness the burial of Otto by Charles, who is dedicated to carrying e family
out his father's wish to be buried on the land he worked and loved. Much of the story is the simple portrayal of Charles' daylong construction of his father's coffin, a labor carried out with such devotion that the simple taking of a hammer to a nail is a consecrated act.
In another story, "Suitors," we are shown Martin Neumiller's moment of proposal to his future wife, Alpha, and the comic denouement when Alpha's parents awaken Martin early in the morning, after he has spent a night on their couch, and thrust him out hurriedly into the cold Sunday morning air without so much as coffee. It seems clear to Martin that he is being dismissed, perhaps because he is a Catholic and they Lutherans, until his future father-in-law exclaims:
" 'Hold on now,' Jones said. 'I'll tell you. With all the churchgoing and whatnot the wife has had -- this is on her -- and the praying for my soul and so forth, she went and forgot it was Sunday. I was the one who remembered.'
"Jones nudged Martin, winked an ice-fringed eye, and said, "Now, what do you think? Do you think I might be Christian?' "
In "Pneumonia," Martin's son Charles comes down with a dangerous illness. At the very door of death, he has a feverish dream that he is chewing bubble gum. "His jaws move from side to side in a soft, erotic mastication. He is home again, in bed, asleep yet not asleep; his eyelids are transparent. He sees that there is nothing beyond the bedroom curtains, no yard or hedge or houses or countryside, only a shading of light blue." The chewing grows voracious, predatory; he devours bedclothes, curtains, dressers, nightstands, until "he makes a final effort to move, using the last of his remaining strength, the ration he's held in reserve, and breaks free into an icy brightness, borne on a chilly current of blue air, and sees a mirror image of his body, tiny as a doll, heading toward a hole in the shining universe."
This is not death, but the breaking of a fever, and Charles is saved. But the stories otherwise focus on death: of Otto Neumiller, of Alpha in childbirth, of her two brothers, Conrad and Elling, in a car crash, of Charles' (fourth generation) and Kathy Neumiller's premature firstborn child. There is a dark fringe around these stories; if they celebrate the family, they also mourn its passing.
"Mourning inscribed in prose" is one way to describe them. They are poignant and moving, Woiwode at the top of his form. Reading them, we can see what all the fuss was about.