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A Step From Death A Memoir; Larry Woiwode; Counterpoint: 272 pp., $24

March 09, 2008|Thomas McGonigle | Thomas McGonigle is the author of "Going to Patchogue" and "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov."

I wanted to love Larry Woiwode's memoir "A Step From Death." To begin with, what a wonderful title. I had hoped to place it on the shelf next to "The Education of Henry Adams" and Michel Leiris' "Rules of the Game." Woiwode is the author of "Beyond the Bedroom Wall," which, if anyone still cares about such a thing, is for me the Great American Novel, having nudged over Glenway Wescott's "The Grandmothers."

Like Wescott, Woiwode is a novelist of the middle United States, what used to be called the heartland. His imagination is grounded in the shared experience of ordinary people in Illinois and especially in North Dakota. "Beyond the Bedroom Wall" concerns itself with the large Neumiller family and the rippling effects on it of the young mother's death on the family. Eschewing a straightforward narrative, Woiwode created an innovative work of fiction that is a blazing sun -- ironically centered in the void left by this missing mother -- and about which, as far as I'm concerned, all his other books revolve.

With "A Step From Death," Woiwode is writing the third of his memoirs. The book echoes material from "What I Think I Did," which describes Woiwode's survival of the awful winter of 1996 in North Dakota along with his life in New York City as a young writer and actor (his friends include, among others, "Bob" De Niro, who takes care of Woiwode's daughter so that he and his wife can go to the launch party for his first novel). His other memoir, "Acts," is a sort of religious testament in the form of a commentary on the Acts of the Apostles intertwined with Woiwode's childhood Catholicism and later move toward Calvinist Presbyterianism. "A Step From Death" is centered on his life in North Dakota.

"I didn't move here," he writes, addressing his son Joseph, "to embark on a Tolstoyan or religious retreat not to mention other rumors I've read about myself, although I am a Christian and have been from the time I can remember and we did not move to a family farm, as misinformation has it, but to an area of the state I came to love for its light and landscape when I was twelve (I grew up two hundred miles east); and it was here your mother and I found the least spoiled country once we decided to move West . . . after living in the East and the Midwest for a decade, hoping to raise you all in a pristine place. I've always enjoyed the company of working people, including writers who record the existing world to reshape or better it, rather than those so enmeshed in writing they're overwhelmed, nearly speechless at their significance."

"A Step From Death" is also, among many things, a letter to Joseph, who, coming after three daughters, is the one in whom Woiwode sees himself; in turn, Woiwode considers their father-son relationship as well. After a horseback-riding accident, in which his son is injured and is in a coma, Woiwode writes:

"My thoughts were swirling in the wobbly orbit of moths circling lamplight, some sailing off in the dark and swinging back with a tinge of the alien, seeking a place to rest. Every act in my life that might have caused your accident replayed with a glow of accusation, at the center of it all my drinking, now mostly in the past but reappearing enough to mar moments or cause you to question my stability (my worth, I thought) so I would forswear alcohol I said inside. And beneath this my back story, internal when it wasn't spoken, kept up: I know you're there. I'm with you. We'll do all we can to help. . . . I know the good work God started in you will be brought to completion. He won't abandon you. I won't. People all over are praying for you."

An earlier accident, when his children were playing with matches and set the barn on fire, is also recorded with jarring honesty:

"Streaks of tears stained your soot-darkened face, and when the central roof collapsed you wailed with the girls. After all I said in anger, I saw the loss was as great to you as me and maybe worse, since it was the only barn on the only place you knew from the day you could walk, as much a retreat for you as for me, your place to play and hide. In twenty minutes the collapse was complete. . . . Behind your tears was the look of terror that comes with fear of oneself, and a tangent fear and remorse for your sisters. I took it as fear of me as much as anything and went into the bedroom and buried my face in the pillow and, in the manner of the Berns, in Dakota lingo, bawled my eyes out.

"Fire for fire, I thought, and who or what was damaged most? I had endangered you by all I'd let slip or hadn't sought for you, a son without a father to steer by. . . . Here at the desk you and I built I sit up as if from that bed, myself at last, with the startling thought that you're in Iraq, and then: Joseph, you're a father now."

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