California Literary Review

Kornwolf by Tristan Egolf


April 22nd, 2007 at 9:05 am

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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]

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