Title: You Can’t Go Home Again
Author: Thomas Wolfe
Date: 1938, 1992
Publisher: Harper Collins
Length: 576 pages
Quote: “I mean do you think you can really go home again?”
He can, and does, and he can’t. That’s the conclusion the main character, George Webber, reaches during 576 pages of travelling and people-watching. Wolfe could have made his point sooner. Such, however, was his talent for patching short stories into a novel that readers feel that cutting out any of the stories of the people the main character meets, or hears about, would have been a loss.
Some of us were lucky enough to grow up in families whose elders remembered the 1930s well, and could tell a story or preach a sermon at the slightest provocation. Reading You Can’t Go Home Again is like being able to share the stories one of them might have told you.
Having been actually written in the 1930s, it’s clear-eyed, no “good old days when everything was wonderful” sentimentalism. Life was hard for many people then, too. Things had changed too fast to suit many people then, too. I suspect that if Thomas Wolfe were still around, he’d recognize all his characters in the places where they’d be and the clothes they’d wear today.
On the other hand, there’s not much plot to this novel. George Webber spends a few years travelling. That’s the pretext for Wolfe to tell us all those stories about all those people we meet just once in the course of George’s journey. Most of them are static images, really; their stories explain what has brought them to the place where we meet them. Travelling is about as active as George gets, too. He’s a writer; when stirred to action he sits down and writes something, and usually we’re not even shown what he writes. Along the way, although he’s no longer a teenager and although Wolfe didn’t write You Can’t Go Home Again for high school readers, George grows up. He doesn’t solve a mystery, commit or prevent a murder, make or lose a fortune, have a mental breakdown, or even have sex under any conditions Wolfe considers relevant to his story. He just meets people, watches, listens, and ponders the question of where a novelist from North Carolina ought to live.
Sometimes George lacks empathy. Sometimes his political correctness or lack of it, though period-perfect as far as I can tell, makes a modern reader wince. He’s not a hater; noticing when he expresses prejudices, and why, is a way to track the progress of his personal growth. Wolfe’s literary technique takes us into George’s conscious mind, where, instead of sternly examining the resentment and guilt George feels toward his Jewish wife, George lets his feelings fester out in a casually mean comment about “Jewesses.” (He’ll eventually be reconciled to his wife, but he’ll never really celebrate his in-laws; the novel is more anti-hate than pro-anybody.)
There’s a similar disconcerting shift between George’s sympathy for neighbors, whom he knows by name as well as by the classification “Negroes,” and his cheap contempt for strangers he classifies by the term of hate derived from the word “Negroes.” Wolfe never makes George examine the elitist bigotry that’s disguised by his use of racist words, but Wolfe does let readers notice that George expresses elitist bigotry only when he’s feeling so alienated that jumping out of a window seems heroic to him. (George is not the man standing in the window on the front cover of my copy of the novel; he hears about that man and admires the decisiveness that allows the other man to jump.)
In the end You Can’t Go Home Again can be classified as life-affirming and even pro-family, if only in a sardonic way; if George doesn’t want to live here, here, here or here, and he doesn’t want to die, then the place for him must be...with his wife, of course; if he’s not “in love,” at least he’s seen where hate can lead. George is no more a hero than his story is a celebration of North Carolina, but he’s seen the world, as it looked in his day, and picked up lots of good stories. There’s no reason why he should not live and write happily ever after.
This one's not a Fair Trade Book. It's a classic. It's been known to appear on high school reading lists. I have a copy...well, actually I've sold the copy I had on display when I wrote this review, but if you buy it online what you will get will be a clean copy (not a discard from a black-mold-infested library)...available on the usual terms: $5 per book, $5 per package for shipping, you can fit a couple of other books into the package, send payments to salolianigodagewi @ yahoo.com. It's not hard to find. You can probably get a copy, cheaper, though not necessarily mold-free, at a local charity sale, with this web site's blessing. If you want to add a copy of You Can't Go Home Again to a package along with one or more Fair Trade Books, however, let us know.