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by Thomas Gardner
What Will Suffice
Larry Woiwode's 1975 novel Beyond the Bedroom Wall is one of the great American books. Focused on the Neumiller family—Alpha and Martin, and their children Jerome, Charles, Tim, Susan, and Marie—but ranging back a number of generations and forward to the children's adulthood, the novel is a lyric exploration of time's heart-stopping thefts and quiet restorations. Its central event is the death of Alpha at 34, just a few months after the family had moved from the small town of Hyatt, North Dakota—its smells and rhythms and intimacies painstakingly re-created by Woiwode—to an improvised, disorienting stab at a new life in Forest Creek, Illinois. Alpha's death opens an abyss. The family stays intact, but Martin almost buckles under the pressure of continuing on, and the children splinter and piece themselves together in various and richly imagined ways.
Charles, the second son and nine at the time of the disaster, is convinced that his hateful thoughts about his mother brought about her death. Echoing passages in the book where, as children, both his grandfather and his older brother Jerome stilled themselves in the dark and re-created a world far beyond their bedroom walls—their parents' room, the yard and fields, North Dakota, North America, drawing ever closer "to a vast source of power" beyond it all—Charles wakes one night turned the wrong way in bed. It is the last night he will see his mother, a night filled with phone calls and stricken faces, something terrible and unspoken being withheld from the children:
I woke to darkness, twisted in the blankets, my heart beating hard against the mattress. I had to see my mother right away. I started out of bed and struck the wall. The wall was on the other side of the cot. I tried again, and again I struck it. There wasn't a wall on that side of the cot, and not all the logic in the world, or the wall itself, could convince me otherwise. Being reversed in bed never occurred to me. I tried ...