What happened to the two faces in that most familiar of national paintings, Grant Woods' "American Gothic"? Surely, the Providence, grit and endurance of that severe farm couple--or, you might say, the ruthlessness toward their own life--are a harsh underpinning of our national ease. The shopping mall has a prairie grandfather.
Is there a genetic trace of those bleak and driven features among today's mall shoppers and urban dwellers? Larry Woiwode makes it his task as a writer to pursue the trace and turn it into fiction.
Most of the 13 stories collected here treat of four generations of the Neumiller family, starting with Otto, who came over from Germany in 1881 and homesteaded in North Dakota, down to Charles, who lives uneasily in New York and drifts between acting and advertising.
"The Neumiller Stories" have an unusual publishing history. They first appeared in magazines--all but two in The New Yorker--over the last 25 years. Ten of them were re-worked in the mid-'70s to form part of a novel, "Beyond the Bedroom Wall," perhaps the most warmly received of Woiwode's books. In a rather elliptical prologue, Woiwode suggests that something was lost in the re-working, whatever else was gained, and that their original life merits recalling.
I think he is right, though this collection has its problems. Life in a Woiwode story is not merely hard but heavy as well, whether it deals with a mortal Dakota winter or the horror of a botched childbirth in a vastly indifferent New York hospital.
There is the hardness of life on the one hand, and contrasting with it, in the farm stories, the fine sensibility of a child's recollection. The heavy recalcitrance of the world is heavier and more recalcitrant precisely because of the delicacy of the perception that takes it in. Woiwode writes the brutal cargo of the event without the lift that an event brings with it. Into his prairie dust storms, the eye gazes wide open and unwinking, as it would not do in fact; in fact, it would be hooded.
It is not that his stories are bitter. There is an air of reconciliation at the end of many of them, an acceptance of the wider panorama with which a hilltop rewards the climber. But the panorama itself is stained with fatigue.
"The Burial," one of the more powerful stories, tells of Charles Neumiller, a carpenter, coming home to bury Otto, his father, in the early 1930s. Otto had prospered; the Depression did not quite wipe him out as it did many of his neighbors, but it broke his heart.
Charles busies himself in the decaying farmhouse, where only his sister remains. He builds a coffin, digs a grave, washes his father's corpse. All these things are described in detail, as if they were a cross section of the endless Sisyphean drudgery of rural life.
It has a bitter solitude to it; Otto's neighbors resented his bare survival; they have come one by one to take bits of equipment to settle real or imaginary accounts. Each blow of Charles' hammer is a kind of defiance. Then, as he is about to lower the coffin, his sister stops him. A line of mourners is approaching; it is the neighbors. Rural life means hardship and feuding, but it also means a deeper solidarity.
A number of the stories center about Martin, Charles' son. He has gone to college, but he is on the borderline. His work as schoolteacher and school principal doesn't pay very well. Goaded in part by his wife's yearning for better things, he tries working as an insurance salesman, a farm helper, a plasterer.
Physical toil is a curse; it infects the home. Martin's wife pines away, unable either to bear the pain of her husband's servitude or to find a way to release him from it. One of the book's most beautiful stories tells of Martin, now a widower with five small children, coming home after a day of hard labor.
The children are fretful; something has gone amiss. Martin forces himself through their evasions to find out what it is. Charles-- who will become an actor and move to New York--has bullied a neighbor's child. Martin lashes out in a fury, and the shame that follows is like death. And when he goes to see Charles, in bed and sobbing, the child's hand, stealing into his father's, is a resurrection.
"The Suitor," by contrast, is rural comedy. Martin, just out of college, is courting his future wife. Her father is suspicious of the young man, chiefly because he is Roman Catholic. A blizzard forces Martin to spend the night, and allows the occasion for him to propose, and his sweetheart to accept.
Next morning, in sub-zero weather, the father hustles him out of bed and out of the house. His horses stand hitched to Charles' Model T. He cannot, it seems, get rid of the young man too quickly. Martin is close to tears, until it turns out that the father, in a bit of tight-lipped gallantry, is simply making sure he gets to Mass on time.
"Suitor" is as close as the collection comes to lightheartedness. In two of the final stories, North Dakota seems to pursue young Charles--Martin's son--right into the city. In "Firstborn," Charles and his wife, Katherine, have both been through several years of free-floating sex, drugs and 1970s-style self-fulfillments.
When she gets pregnant, they make awkward efforts to cope; when she is prematurely delivered of a dead baby in the vividly described chaos and indifference of a city hospital, it sets off a mutual collapse. In the next story, "A Brief Fall," Charles disappears for three days; the story is told in terms of Katherine's helpless, anguished wait for him to come back.
They will recover, have children, move to the country. We don't see much of that. What we see in the two city stories is the equivalent of blizzards, dust storms and killing toil. The city masks these things; the price of the mask is emptiness and disintegration.