California Literary Review

Kornwolf by Tristan Egolf

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April 22nd, 2007 at 9:05 am

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Kornwolf
by Tristan Egolf
Grove Press, 384 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★½

The Kornwolf Comes to Lancaster County

Is biology destiny? Is biography literature? Is psychopathology literature? We suspect that Franz Kafka, home from the workman’s compensation insurance company for which he worked by day, worked desperately each evening, trying to survive that world of bureaucracy and conformism while both taming and expressing his demons. But we do not read Kafka still as psychopathology. We read him as a stylist of lean, spare prose, and a parabolist who embodied fractals of modern sensibility.

Tristan Egolf (1971-2005) reportedly took his life just after writing Kornwolf, his third novel, not unlike his father, also a professional writer, who took his. Reportedly the son suffered from a bi-polar disorder, as did Hemingway and other death-bound authors. But what of value may be found in his work, apart from psychopathology? As a Jungian analyst, I have an interest in psychopathology, but, frankly, I have seen enough to last a lifetime.

I would rather have a good read. So, with an occasional nod in the direction of psychopathology, I will try to ask the question of whether Kornwolf is a good read, good enough for the reader of this review to go beyond the review to read the book.

It takes only the first sentence of the book:

…tearing through bull-thistle, jimsonweed, supplejack—brittle with mid-autumn coming of frost—and of pulsating crimson, appendages thwarted and stumbling, slam into fallen timber, as worm-ridden slick with organic decay—to meandering blindly through goldenrod, inkberry, sheep laurel, bladdernut, Solomon’s seal—a prickling rash of woodland nettles—cries emanating from lurch of within, as of burning of flame now, at once underfoot—down embankment and plunging headlong into watercress, chilly with runoff from fertilized fields, and of crippling thirst satiated in excess—then up again, scrambling, mud on the incline, jagged escarpment, then over to stillness… [Sic]

to realize that one is in the presence of genius, perhaps mad genius, but generative genius nonetheless. And we need not ignore the pathos of “cries emanating from lurch of within, as of burning of flame now,” to also appreciate the Joycean exuberance of language and affect.

Kornwolf raises the question of whether or not one can endure one’s heritage. We all have tendencies to repeat that heritage, spend our lives rebelling against it, or enacting an unconscious treatment plan for it. As one character says, “Better off dead than a prodigal son,” but one is still tied to that which one hates. The literal terrain of Kornwolf is the region west of Philly, out Route 30, where the curiously named township of Lamepeter and settlements of Blue Ball, Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand, Laycock, and Paradise actually exist, but where a werewolf also roams, no doubt to embody the rage of the author that Penns Woods have been turned into Pennsylvania, the City of Brotherly Love into Philth Town, the plain folk Amish into marketable commodities, with tourist car exhaust blighting the crops.

I once taught on a campus formerly haunted by “The Jersey Devil,” now an appliqué on the fuselage of F-16s which line the Pomona tarmac. Egolf tracks back into seventeenth century Germany, and the horrors of neighbor turned against neighbor in the Thirty Years War, to revive the legend of the Kornwolf, who haunted that desolate terrain as a spirit of vengeance, both blight and pariah. The Kornwolf, which means “the wolf of the grain fields,” like Hesse’s “wolf of the steppes,” is an embodiment of the shadow, of our darkest fears, and possibilities–in this case looking both animal and an amalgam of “Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man and Richard Nixon.” This melding of occult history, local culture, and slapstick is all one needs to know of the sensibility of Egolf. Thus, lycanthropy comes to Lancaster County, along with interstate highways, tourists, and Rumspringa, the rite de passage “wilding” Amish youth go through before deciding to enter either the community of faith and disciplined practice, or the world of the “English,” as outsiders are called.

Is Kornwolf a giant spoof, social satire, a put on, socio-political invective, comedy noir, personal pathology, roman à clef, or all of the above? In today’s mishigas of Iraq and U. S. foreign policy, how can one tell the difference? Egolf created the “Smoketown Six,” was arrested for political theatre during George Bush’s visit to the area, sued in return for violation of First Amendment rights, and, after his death, a settlement with the government was negotiated. Where does fiction leave off, and reality begin; where does the comic become tragic become comic again? This is the nether realm between rage and laughter–where real politics is also political theatre–Egolf traverses.

Egolf’s comedic muse reminds one of Rabelais at times, the op ed page of the New York Times, at times, and is always informed by deep, deep anguish and rage, informing the feral creature who roams those rolling Amish hills. Sometimes his aesthetic restraint is overrun by his passion, not unlike the Kornwolf, but the aesthetic sensibility is always there: “The veins in her neck were like ruts in the candlelight.” “He felt like a giant throbbing artichoke beached in silt.” This may be hyperbolic, mixed metaphor, but no reader remains indifferent. Egolf is a Basquiat of prose. Sometimes his rushed prose cries out for a Maxwell Perkins with his scalpel of concision, limit, and shape, but one is never not in the presence of exuberant language.

So, what is the final view of Kornwolf, and its author?

That is a matter for individual taste. Les Fauves were, after all, the “wild beasts,” not so long ago, and today society matrons pay bundles for their “disturbed, outsider” arte brut. What today is bestial, after all, in a culture which has produced Abu Ghraib? If one is indifferent to such energy read something else. If one is not indifferent, Kornwolf is a good read—feral, comic, sophisticated, nuanced, crazed, and compelling. Either way, the same energy Egolf carried within, and spilled onto the pages, haunts modernism. The last words of the novel, perhaps referring to the spirit of vengeance, perhaps referring to the madness of sane people, perhaps referring to the evil civil men do, perhaps referring to the beast which haunts our souls, read: “this story never ends….”

So, Egolf has removed himself from this daily world we still inhabit, but his Kornwolf haunts the dream you dream tonight, informs tomorrow morning’s paper, inflames the brains of politicians, and ravages the granary of history. His pestilential smell, his slashing teeth, his bloody urgency will not go away. This story never ends….

[Related Link: A Toast to Tristan Egolf]

  • interested reader

    Could you provide a source for the information that Egolf had bipolar disorder?

    From the time of his death until the present, I’ve been regularly reading reports of Egolf’s work and life on the Web and have yet to see a reputable, verifiable source that Egolf was bipolar.

    There were some references in the media to Hoober being a therapist, but he was not Egolf’s therapist, he was his friend.

    If you can provide a link to verifiable data that Egolf was bipolar, I would be interested. If there is no such data, I think we have to be careful in saying it, because information like that, especially when mentioned by a credentialed individual with a PhD, has a way of perpetuating through the Web until it becomes “fact” in people’s minds.

    I’m not trying to be contrary. I simply was surprised that, in all my research of Egolf, I hadn’t encountered facts to substantiate a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and I would like to fill in my records, if he did, indeed, have this problem.

    Thank you for the interesting review of Kornwolf.

  • Paul Comstock, Editor, California Literary Review

    Dear Interested Reader,

    I appreciate your comment and this review should certainly not be considered a diagnosis of Tristan Egolf.

    As Dr. Hollis states, Tristan “reportedly” suffered from bipolar illness. Tristan’s obituary in Britain’s The Guardian Newspaper (http://books.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,11617,1486622,00.html) is one example that mentions his coping with “manic depression.” Any information you can provide to the contrary is welcome.

    Thank you again for your input.

  • interested reader

    Paul, many thanks for your response and for posting that link.

    I enjoy Guardian Unlimited and read it regularly yet somehow managed to miss their obituary on Tristan Egolf.

    From what I’ve researched so far, the article in GU appears to be balanced and accurate. My only concern is about the wording of the opening and closing sentences.

    I think it’s unwise to state categorically that Egolf shot himself. From a journalistic point of view, what we know is that Egolf was a resident of W. Lemon St and was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head in an apartment on N. Charlotte Street. Kirchner, the coroner, is said to have ruled that the gunshot wound was self-inflicted. While it may be inconvenient to repeat all that in subsequent articles about Egolf (it’s so much easier to say suicide), I think a responsible journalist will state what is known rather than what is assumed.

    As for the closing sentences of the GU article, the author did, as you said, mention manic depression. Because I’ve seen no primary source data confirming a diagnosis of manic depression, I’m going to take the statement with a grain of salt, for the time being. I know that Michael Hoober was quoted in the press as having mentioned depression, but depression and bipolar disorder (often called “manic depression”) are two very different things.

    Again, thank you for Dr. Hollis’s review and for your timely response. I appreciate the link and the information.

  • Isabel Malender

    This wonderful depiction of a hugely talented author reminds me of an emerging fiction writer Saira Viola who also uses social satire and revealing social commentary in her work . She is still largely unknown but the mix of absurdity, pathos and social undercurrents had me thinking of her work as similar in many aspects . I will definitely read more from him . An excellent review .

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