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Thomas Wolfe Was a Coward

We’ll soon leave the hill that inspired my first novel

Thomas Wolfe was a coward. 

First, his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, was a work of fiction. The protagonist, George Webber, was a writer who earned the wrath of his hometown when they felt abused by his depiction of it, and them. As this was a work of fiction it created no actual ill will for Mr. Wolfe.

The second, perhaps most important aspect of Mr. Wolfe’s gutless effort is the fact that he died before the novel was published. It is easy to offend posthumously (see Confederate statue debate) but I suspect it is difficult for the offender to sense outrage from beyond the grave.

Should members of the living persist in their efforts to persecute the dead, society itself applies gentle pressure on the inflamed and encourages them to be still. It is, for some reason, considered indelicate to speak ill of the dead. Death is not only a marketing ploy for the starving artist–it is also its own absolution.

“Yes, old Grandpa Cobb had a lot of strange ideas, but he was always nice to me. Mostly.”

That type of posthumous description seems like an attainable goal.

I recall attending a funeral where the pastor waxed poetic about how the deceased, confined to a closed casket below the pulpit, so loved his fellow man. All his fellow man. A young man sitting in the pew in front of me turned to his father seated next to him and whispered (he thought), “But Daddy, I thought cousin Steve was racist.”

“Shush Billy. Now isn’t the time for talking.”

Billy, not to be denied, pressed his point, “Aren’t there going to be black people in heaven? What is cousin Steve going to do when he has to live with black people?”

The father, trying to his to look forward and avoid eye-contact with anyone in the crowd trying to follow Billy’s commentary, muttered, “I’m not so sure cousin Steve is going to heaven.”

I was mesmerized by the exchange. The pastor kept extolling the many virtues of good-old cousin Steve while Billy pondered the weighty verdict his father had just passed. The pastor’s confidence grew as he wove a tale of a man beyond reproach. This was textbook stuff. No one goes to a funeral expecting to hear the actual details/faults of the deceased. Give him a good send-off and let’s hope the widow isn’t stingy with the liquor at the after party. Anyone listening to the pastor had no doubts that heaven was the final destination for the racist piece of crap that was cousin Steve.

Anyone, that was, except Billy, who muttered to himself, “Well, I bet it’s not just white people in hell.”

At that point, several heads turned the direction of little Billy, and his father grabbed him by the arm, apologized to those he stepped over as he and Billy made their way to the exit, and said, with a cheerfulness that bordered on shame, “Kids say the damndest things.”

My wife, who is better and kinder than I, does not need the expiration of life to reformulate her views of a person. In her case, the simple passage of time applies the rose-colored glasses of remembrance. Recently she stated that a particular politician whose acts once inspired her to pace the house at night venting her displeasure now seemed, “Nice.”

“Nice? You hated his guts!”

“Yes, but he has grandkids now and he’s doing a lot of good things with other former presidents—”

“The one who schtupped the intern?”

“Yes,” she replied without missing a beat, “But he’s also gone on to do so many good things.”

I assessed her mood, then chanced a counter.

“If I schtupped a 20-something would you still say kind things about me?

“You’re not the president, dear, and you wouldn’t have the first idea of what to say to a 20-something.”

I believe this ability to say, and perhaps do, outrageous things and get away with it extends beyond presidents and applies to senior citizens as a group. Case in point: my grandmother slapped the table one Thanksgiving and announced, to the fifteen or so family members assembled, that, “I’m sixty-five now, and I’m going to say whatever the f*ck I want.”

She was already my hero, but that outburst sealed the deal. A moment passed, and everyone returned to eating. The lesson was further ingrained in my psyche: do not engage the elderly when they jump the verbal shark. Grandma was now a truth-speaker. I don’t recall her dropping any particular bombs that night as a follow-up, but we were all on notice. 

Unfortunately, in the case of my grandmother, her compulsion to say whatever was on her mind ended up taking a toll on her friends—who exited one-by-one over the years after receiving a truth-blast. Saying whatever you want does not, therefore, exempt the elderly from offending their peers.

While this complex set of rules has been forged to exempt certain people and classes from causing permanent offense, society and technology have also provided a different, impersonal route for those who purposely want to throw a little hate from a distance: e-mail, text, social media and the ability to post commentary after online articles. The sheer volume of this impersonal vitriol has rendered many numb, which compels those who revel in its delivery to further up their game.

I share these thoughts as I will soon pen a novel regarding our time in Costa Rica. This particular novel has been on my mind for years. I contacted several agents about a year after we arrived with the idea of generating interest. 

“Are you still there?”

“In Costa Rica? Yes.”

“Then, no. No one wants a book about living in another country if the author still resides there. People want the whole ‘journey is the destination’ business. The arc of the story. The fond memories mixed with the mess that was life as an ex-pat. Call me when you leave.”

“But Peter Mayle still lives in Provence!”

“You’re not Peter Mayle.”

This point was well taken. The more I looked at the genre Mr. Mayle helped to create the more I realized the agents were right. People did appear to want an arc to the story that ended with the author back home, or somewhere other than the original destination.

Some of these, such as The Sex Lives of Cannibals, are fantastic reads. Others, which shall go nameless, are more like an extended, tiring family blog.

The good news, sort of, is that we’re leaving Costa Rica this summer in favor of Canada. The bad news is that the move is inspired by my medical condition—which is a topic I thought would wait a few more years.

I, therefore, need to find more bravery than Mr. Wolfe while also resisting the urge to go full Grandma. I do not have the luxury of being considered elderly (though I believe I qualify for AARP membership) nor do I have the cover provided by death—at least not yet.

There is, to be clear, no shortage of material. I say and do a lot of stupid, silly things. A trip to the grocery store that does not result in an anecdote is a trip that did not involve me.

There is also a vast reserve of stories that involve the people and places I’ve encountered in our time here in Pura Vida. I will endeavor to do my best to stay on the correct side of the line, but Costa Rica is now on notice that anything that happens over the next three-plus months is apt to inspire a chapter. Per usual, names, and facts will be changed to both protect and enhance.

See you at the grocery store.