An American Genius

Patrick Parrinder

  • The Runaway Soul by Harold Brodkey
    Cape, 835 pp, £15.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 224 03001 9

‘This man has been called America’s greatest writer,’ boasts Cape’s press release. ‘On the evidence of two collections of short stories, he has been compared to Proust, Wordsworth and Milton.’ After more than twenty-five years’ labour, he has finally published ‘the most eagerly awaited first novel of all time’. Sadly, The Runaway Soul is only the most overweight first novel of all time. A sort of Midwestern version of Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’, its 800 pages of first-person narrative are formless, plotless and graceless. Harold Brodkey, who began his career in the New Yorker in the Fifties, has been slowly maturing not a well-tempered masterpiece but the garrulous, profligate self-celebrations of a precocious adolescent who never grew up. It is not even clear why the novel ends where it does, since ‘let us pause’ is all the narrator says in the middle of his last paragraph. Few of those lulled by the publicity into buying this book are likely to get that far.

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