Oversexed in Indianapolis

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1970 review of Dan Wakefield‘s Going All the Way

Kurt Vonnegut's 'Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons'
Kurt Vonnegut’s review of Dan Wakefield’s Going All the Way originally appeared in a 1970 issue of LIFE magazine and is currently published in his book of essays Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons.

Dan Wakefield is a friend of mine. We both went to Shortridge High School in Indianapolis—where the students put out a daily paper, by the way. His publisher is my publisher. He has boomed my books. So I would praise his first novel, even if it were putrid. But I wouldn’t give my Word of Honor that it was good.

Word of Honor: Mr. Wakefield has been a careful and deep author of nonfiction for years—Island in the City, Revolt in the South, The Addict…The Atlantic Monthly gave him an issue all his own for Supernation at Peace and War. Word of Honor: He is also an important novelist now.

Going All the Way is about what hell it is to be oversexed in Indianapolis, and why so many oversexed people run away from there. It is also about the narrowness and dimness of many lives out that way. And I guarantee you this: Wakefield himself, having written this book, can never go home again. From now on, he will have to watch the 500-mile Speedway race on television.

This is a richer book than Portnoy’s Complaint, with wider concerns and more intricate characters, but the sexual problems are much the same. Wakefield shows us two horny young Hoosiers, and it is easy to imagine their meeting Alexander Portnoy in a Howard Johnson’s—midway between Indianapolis and New York. If they were candid with one another, they would admit that they were rotten lovers, and they might suppose mournfully that rotten lovers were not welcomed by women anywhere.

Going All the Way is a period of piece, incidentally—set in ancient times, at the close of the Korean War. And every book is a period piece now—since years or even weeks in American no longer resemble each other at all.

• • •

This book is full of belly laughs, but I am suspicious of belly laughs as entirely happy experiences. The only way to get a belly laugh, I’ve found, is to undermine a surface joke with more unhappiness than most mortals can bear.

After a series of low-comedy sexual failures, for instance, one of Wakefield’s heroes cuts his wrists lightly with a razor blade, “…so that rivulets of blood began to flow together, forming a thick little puddle.” That isn’t funny, and the scene becomes less funny as it goes on.

He started smearing the blood over his face and over the front of his torn shirt, like an Indian painting himself to prepare for a ceremony—a battle, a blessing, a death.

So much for sexual comedy. Nobody dies in the book, but a lot of people would like to, or at least wouldn’t mind. Wakefield’s reportage of life in Middle America, as one might expect, is gruesomely accurate and enchanting. His sex-addled fools tool their parents’ automobiles through a vast pinball machine whose bumpers and kickers are strip joints and taverns and gas stations and golf driving ranges and hamburger stands. They see whorehouses, which, it turns out, have been closed for years.

They return home periodically to their smug and vapid parents, grumpily declining to say where they’ve been. Their stomachs, already churning with hamburgers and beer, twist even more grotesquely when their parents want to know when they are going to settle down to nice jobs and nice wives and nice houses in Indianapolis.

Finally—there is a tremendous automobile crash. And, finally again, the wildly sexy novel isn’t a sex novel. It is really about a society so drab that sex seems to the young to be the only adventure with any magic in it. When sex turns out to be merely sex, the young flee to more of the same elsewhere—and they play dangerous games with, among other things, automobiles and razor blades.

How old are Wakefield’s protagonists? About the same age Ernest Hemingway was when he returned to Middle America as a quiet, wounded, authentic hero of World War One.

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Dorothy Day: The One-Woman Revolution

I was introduced to a quietly imposing woman without makeup who wore her grey hair in a braid around her head, like a peasant or one of those strong Midwestern farm women painted by Grant Wood, or portrayed by Willa Cather in O Pioneers. She was Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper and guiding spirit of the movement of the same name. Dorothy greeted me politely, reservedly and rather sternly. and let me see a copy of the first issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper, which sold for a penny, and was published on May Day of 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression. When I read the first editorial, one that she wrote, I had to sit down and copy it into my notebook. It said the paper would not be restricted to the people of of any one religion or political belief, any one color of skin or cut of clothes, but that it was   

“For those who are sitting on benches in he warm spring sunlight.
“For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain.
“For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work
“For those who think there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight.”

I felt a tinge from the power of the words and of the woman who wrote them. When I looked up, she was gone.

The Catholic Worker had a “Hospitality House” in the Bowery – unlike the “Mission Houses” in the Bower – the section of Manhattan where the winos and derelicts gathered – you didn’t have to declare yourself “saved by Jesus” to get fed. You didn’t have to sing a hymn. All you had to do was be hungry.

I wrote about Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker in my second article published in The Nation magazine (“Miracle in the Bowery”) and I got to be friends with some of the young volunteers who had come from all across the country to live and work there – Michael Harrington, who went on to write The Other America that inspired the LBJ poverty program, and Ned O’Gorman, the poet who wrote reviews for Commonweal magazine. I also met Mary Ann McCoy, Eileen Fantino and Helen Russell, who had started a day care center for children in East Harlem, where I went to live and write my first book Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem.

After my article about The Catholic Worker came out in The Nation, Dorothy wouldn’t speak to me. I was shocked, because I had praised her and her work. Finally, I learned that she was upset that I had cited a fact from her Bohemian past that I had learned from Malcolm Cowley’s book Exile’s Return, about the writers who had lived in Paris in the ‘Twenties and came home to America in the next decade. Cowley had written that in the Village in the ‘Twenties, “Dorothy Day was the only one who could drink Eugene O’Neill under the table.” I though that was a great achievement; she felt it glamorized the destructive fantasy of my era of the ‘Fifties that drinking yourself to an early death was a literary achievement.  I hope that anecdote does not derail the movement for her canonization which began in the ‘Seventies and continues to this day.

Pope Francis became the first pontiff to comment on Dorothy Day in September of 2015 when he spoke to the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court. He spoke of the challenges of environmental collapse, poverty and migration, and singled out four Americans who gave us “a way of seeing and interpreting reality” that he said is desperately needed in our time: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.

The information on the Pope’s talk to Congress is from the excellent new biography Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph (Simon and Schuster).

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Me and Little Richard

I was sorry to see Little Richard pass from the scene today. I once was ushered out of a Little Richard event in a Washington hotel. It was the 1970 National Book Association convention, when authors, starved all year for attention, could show up and be invited to good parties with food and drink supplied by publishers. I had teamed up with Digby Diehl, Book Editor of The Los Angeles Times, and we had met some nice women at one of the many cocktail parties and invited them to dinner and a show at a ballroom in the host hotel. We had all had quite a bit of booze, dressed up with harmless seeming fruit juice, and we decided to dance.

Dancing was not on the menu. It wasn’t a full blown concert, but Little Richard and his group were there to be heard an respectfully appreciated. We intended no disrespect when we got up and started dancing, but two large hotel attendants (bouncers) took me and Digby by the elbows and ushered us out of there, our “dates” following.

I dont remember if we had to pay the bill or if the hotel felt it was worth it just to get us out of the place. I have no memory of such “details.” All I remember is the four of us waking up the next morning on the roof of a house in Georgetown. I don’t know how we got down, but somehow we evidently made it.

Little Richard, I meant no disrespect. I am not a good dancer (I flunked Mrs. Gates’ class). Your music inspired me to get up and try to approximate rhythmic movements. I will always be grateful.

– The Adventures of Uncle Dan

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield