These days Larry Woiwode, North Dakota’s poet laureate, lives west of Jamestown, ND where he raises horses. In the late 1960s and early ’70s he lived in New York, published quite a lot and won awards, etc. Now he publishes a book from time to time, usually memoirs with a subtle but definite Christian message, often coupled with death. I’m not a Christian (not traditional anyway), but I am from North Dakota and was curious. I read a memoir and it was so fine I collected some other works by him. Sigh … they’ve sat on my TBR (to be read) shelf for many years now. It’s time.
Poppa John is the name of a television soap opera character which Ned, the protagonist of this work, portrayed for many years. He lived the role, studied it, became Poppa John, and got so stereotyped into it so that when the production company decided to kill him off, he was unemployable due to his recognizability.
A huge part of his role was using Biblical quotes and allusions and that became part of his life. He added those lines, accurately, to his script where he thought they fit. He became Poppa John and was widely known as that.
Now it’s Christmas and he’s coming to the end of the bank role. He and his wife, Celia, go on their annual shopping trip, but Poppa gets side tracked by memories and a bar among other things. Time for background – where he came from and all – where the Christianity came from and fits into this complex character of Ned/Poppa John.
Seems Ned’s father was a crooked cop who got fired and then caught by the mob – or someone (perhaps other cops). Ned’s mom was a stage actress and his grandfather was a preacher. Ned or Poppa John – even his psychiatrist doesn’t know when he’s acting, has some problems dealing with all that – serious problems.
So there are two problems, one in the frame story of going for Christmas presents with no money and getting waylaid, the other about Ned’s background – will he be able to come to terms with it on his own, because he can’t afford the psychiatrist now.
The chronology gets thoroughly mixed – in the first sentence of a paragraph Ned is dealing with his wife but by the last sentence of that paragraph he could be deeply enmeshed in memories of his father. He may be approaching a breakdown though, so ….
Themes – The main thing is the mix between reality and fantasy and using “roles” to cover serious problems. It’s fairly apparent that Woiwode is not impressed with television – almost an evil in his mind, mixing reality with fantasy and leading to serious problems in more than Ned’s life. In 1980s language I suppose Ned is having an “identity crisis,” but it seems like somewhat more than that.
I enjoyed this a lot more than some other books of the era I’ve read for the first time in the 2010s.