Every brooding teenager needs his or her own personal coming of age novel. Well, at least the nerdy ones do. Millions of teens have carried around battered copies of Catcher in the Rye for example. They could relate to Holden Caufield, and his struggles resonated with them.
Mine was Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I read it over and over, filling it with underlining and highlights, wishing I could express my own frustrations as perfectly as Stephen Dedalus expressed his. I imagined that I was, like Stephen, trapped in a place that couldn’t understand me. Like him, I hoped and intended to evade the nets flung at me to hold me from flight.
As I grew older that book no longer mattered much anymore. I still have it, but it’s been a long time since I last read it. With maturity came the realization that I really wasn’t the persecuted soul that I once imagined myself to be.
I was in my early 20s when I first read Absalom, Absalom. It replaced Portrait as “my” book. I read it repeatedly. How could I have ever related to Stephen Dadalus the way I then related to Quentin Compson, I wondered. I then saw myself as Quentin, wrestling with the past in his college dorm room. I felt a definite attachment to Quentin, his melancholy and guilt, his urge to tell a story that few could appreciate fully, his loneliness and his awareness of his place in that story. And like Quentin, I knew that others would never be able to understand that place.
Later I came to believe that Look Homeward, Angel was the finest coming of age novel ever written. By then I was too old to have it consume me the way Portrait and Absalom had. But I knew that if I ever wrote a novel I’d want it to be like Look Homeward, Angel. I also knew that I could not in good conscience write such a brutally honest book, even if I miraculously developed the ability to write like Wolfe. No honorable person would write such a novel. So the pressure was off. I no longer had to regret my failure to produce a great book.
I was 41 years old when I read Run With the Horsemen, a few years after a friend first recommended it to me. I recall reading it on one of the first flights out of LaGuardia after 9-11, when the whole country was still filled with anxiety and dread of the future, and thinking to myself, “This is the best book I have ever read.”
Ferroll Sams is a physician in Fayetteville, Georgia, where he was born and raised. The book is the semi-autobiographical story of Porter Osborne, Jr., a boy growing up in Piedmont Georgia in the 1930s. Dr. Sams wrote it while studying for his medical boards, but didn’t publish it until he was 60 years old.
It is difficult for me to express how deeply moved I was by this book. Porter is a skinny bookish child growing up on a farm in the Piedmont South. He is deeply attached to the land, in ways that he knows without ever having been taught, and he is part of a family web shrouded in romanticism. He is an outstanding student who is insecure about his relationship with his father, an overbearing violent alcoholic. It is exactly what I would have tried to write, were I him. Dr. Sams lacks the lyrical magic of Messrs. Faulkner and Wolfe, and has, I suspect, overly romanticized much of his past. But the book is genuine, and I know exactly what Dr. Sams is saying, and why.
Last night I finished When All the World Was Young, and several years ago I read The Whisper of the River. They carry the story of Porter Osborne through college and World War II. Both are remarkably good. But neither is as wonderful as Run With the Horsemen.
It is the best coming of age novel I have ever read.