House of Breath, by William Goyen

Robert suggested this book to me, and I'm glad he did or I never would have found it. Published in 1949, this first novel explores the hold memory has on us, those earliest memories, of childhood's dark cellars and magical woods, of the family that looms like a race of giants. Snippets of memory repeat and repeat, creating our own personal mythology.

These are the memories of Boy Ganchion, called up on a dark night in strange city. Walking in rain turning to snow, he falls into his past, into his childhood in an large old house in Charity, Texas, filled with family: Swimma, Malley, Berryben, Folner, Christy, Granny Ganchion. He gives them to us, allowing some of them to tell their own stories, in their own voices, of the war between the yearning to go out into the world and the pull of the voices calling them to come home, of the loneliness and despair of sitting in a rocking chair doing the calling.

Goyen's descriptions are compelling. “Christy was big and had dark wrong blood and a glistening beard, the bones in his russet Indian cheeks were thick and arched high and they curved round the deep eye cavities where two great silver eyes shaped like bird's eggs were set in deep—half-closed eyes furred round by grilled lashes that laced together and locked over his eyes.” Christy, the hunter, ventures into the woods and returns garlanded with small birds, speckled with their blood. Isolated with a deaf mother, “He had just talked so long into deafness that he came to judge the whole world deaf, and so he no longer said anything much . . . It was what he didn't say that said what he said.”

The unusual style of Goyen's prose captures the confusion as one memory calls up another, while the voice echoes like a preacher repeating ancient phrases. Folner, who had to leave Charity to indulge his love of spangles and tap shoes, comes home in a cheap coffin. “At your funeral there was a feeling of doom in the Grace Methodist Church, and I sat among my kin feeling dry and throttled in the throat and thought we were all doomed—who are these, who am I, what are we laying away, what splendid, glittering, sinful part of us are we burying like a treasure in the earth?”

The place is a character, too, and Goyen brings alive the creaking house with shelves of old preserves in the cellar, the fields around it full of bitterweed, and the bird-crowded woods. He gives us the town of Charity, the tiny Bijou Theatre, and the City Hotel that burned. “You had this little river, Charity, that scalloped round your hem like a taffeta ruffle. It glided through your bottomlands (that could be seen from the gallery of the house) winking with minnows and riverflies and waterbugs. It was ornamented with big, drowsy snap-turtles sitting like figurines on rocks; had little jeweled perch in it and thick purple catfish shining in it and sliding cottonmouth watermoccasins.”

This river acted as “a kind of Beulah Land for everybody: people gathered at you, gathering at water like creatures. You were known to be treacherous after rains and in your deep places, where it was quietest, were dread suckholes sometimes marked by the warning of a whirlpool, but not always.”

I had to adjust to reading this memory-packed stream-of-consciousness style, so the first few chapters went slowly. I felt that, like Boy, I was struggling to sort out and make sense of the overwhelming rush of memory. However, a semblance of structure emerged, and the power of the prose grew on me. The last few chapters are simply magnificent, culminating in a celebration of what it means to be alive in the world, carrying our own particular past.

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