Random House, $10.00
This is the story of a Claxton County, Alabama, peckerwood whose father, a man with genitalia to be proud of and little else, was killed in a freak-comic accident, run over by a span of mules and a wagon when the boy was nine. His mother, sardonic and iron-willed, made sure that the boy left town on the wings of his education, and he Stayed in flight through the study of the ancient and Romance languages until he had reached Nashville, Chicago, Paris, Rome, and an international reputation. His life, as opposed to his career, consisted mainly of an uphill scramble over the bodies of women. It sounds an unlikely order of march for a compelling narrative, but the book won’t let the reader go.
The reason mainly lies in the language, an amalgam of folk rhythms and cosmopolitan intricacy that Robert Penn Warren (who has uniquely won the Pulitzer Prize in both poetry and fiction) seems to me uniquely to have mastered. Like Thomas Hardy, Warren has worked narrative elements in both novels and poems, and like Hardy’s, his work has been drenched in the conflicting demands of the country and the city. In novel after novel he has exhibited the grapple between a man of fatalistic, sardonic temperament and a woman of powerful but indeterminate will. The principal action of A Place to Come To is devoted to Jediah Tewksbury’s adulterous affair with Rozelle Butler Carrington, nee Hardcastle—a difficult, nay impossible, fortress to overcome.
It wouldn’t be stretching a point too far to suggest that this novel is Warren’s Jude the Obscure; and as a matter of pure narrative it is more intricate and absorbing. This reader, however, is left feeling that the marvels of the narrative have not led him as far as was promised. But then, this reader would rather, any day, savor the late poems of Hardy (or of Warren, now writing as fine poetry as any American alive), than tackle Jude the Obscure.