You Can’t Go Home Again is a “nice, big fat” book, more than seven-hundred pages. Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), Thomas Clayton Wolfe (not to be confused withTom Wolfe, a present day writer) was an inspiration to Jack Kerouac (1922-1969). Thomas Wolfe was a contemporary of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner.
Wolfe writes splendidly about writing, other writers, and publishing. It’s plain to see how this was of interest to the young writer Kerouac. Wolfe pits small city life with the thrills of the big city, New York City, as does Jack.
In You Can’t Go Home Again is charming “Book V” “Exile and Discovery,” especially the delightful chapters on Mr. Lloyd McHarg, which involve a road trip in a Rolls-Royce with a couple of “madmen.” The character McHarg is a great American novelist with a striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln.
But greater than that remarkable likeness to both the physical figure and moral character of Abe is McHarg’s unsurpassed generosity and kindness to an obscure writer. McHarg uses his status not in self-promotion, but in praise of the young author. Anyone who has ever been an obscure writer, and Jack was certainly obscure for many years, cannot help but realize the toothsomeness of that magnificent act of charity, which leads to the young writer’s fame. What writer hasn’t dreamed of being helped along by some august literary figure? As Wolfe’s protagonist George Webber declares, “It seemed to George then, as it seemed to him ever afterwards, one of the most generous acts, he had ever known . . .” George is astonished and joyful and grateful, and meets his benefactor and together they embark on a wild and hilarious ride.
It is my modest opinion, that this is one of the most delicious pieces of literature on writing and writers in all of American literature, comparable to the best of Dickens in the American vernacular. If the idea of reading an entire seven-hundred plus pages of an eighty-year-old book is too daunting a task, read “Book V” for the sheer fun of Thomas Wolfe.
Speaking of fun, in this same “Book V” the chapter “The House in the Country” is a “haw-haw-haw” comic scene about “helpless laughter” with wonderful characters and descriptions of life that are right (write) on. Break open the brandy, many glasses of brandy, and good cigars and enjoy, and see if you don’t recognize the “bright young man” and adhere to McHarg’s essential commonsense and the truth shall set ye free . . . “a writer always knows.”
Wolfe, Thomas. You Can’t Go Home Again. (New York: Harper & Row, 1940).