The latest in paper
Ya! and John-Juan: Two Novelsby Douglas Woolf (introduction by Robert Creeley)
Dalkey Archive, 246 pp. $13.95
Douglas Woolf (1922-1992), among the most original prose fiction writers to emerge in the U.S. in the past 50 years, had a highly unusual background. He was from a wealthy New York family and attended Harvard with John F. Kennedy. During WWII he drove an ambulance for the American Field Service in North Africa. When he returned to the States, he chose to become a writer but supported himself with menial jobs as a farm worker, window washer, beverage vendor, Good Humor Man, and racetrack cleaner. When he'd earned enough money, Woolf would take off to some secluded locale to do his writing.
This volume contains two novels, written from 1962 to 1967 and published in 1971. Ya! appears to be partly autobiographical. Al, the protagonist, is an author who is selling Pepsi at an automobile show. Just before Christmas, he takes off during a blizzard to visit his teenage daughter, who lives on a ranch with obnoxious relatives. He must fight through the storm -- hitchhiking and walking -- but successfully arrives to see her. She not only welcomes her father warmly, but in the end leaves her pushy benefactors to take off with him.
The central figure in the surrealistic John-Juan is an amnesiac, apparently from California, who turns up in a small Mexican town in his pajamas and slippers. After some amusing encounters with local residents, he finds himself working with a group of people that pick up and bury trash along the roads. When he gets back to the States, he's beaten and arrested by a cop who claims he's wanted in California for "indecent language" and "not carrying firearms."
Much of Ya! is taken up by Woolf's microscopic description of Al's life as a vendor living in a cheap hotel. We read here about details involving such things as his work and diet that are seldom encountered in novels. At the end of Ya!, Woolf unleashes a formidable, absurdist sense of humor.
There are political references in John-Juan, but even in this fantasy, Woolf portrays his characters believably, so you can feel their pain and confusion. He's an economical but masterful stylist with a superb eye and ear for detail.