Tom Wayman, Woodstock Rising

 It's too long. Wayman always goes on for too long. But there's a good reason for that.

When a writer’s politics and aesthetics have to do with clarity and accessibility, a kind of zero-fuss-ass approach to meaning, you’re not going to be gifted with koans.

Tom Wayman has deliberately bucked all manner of trends of literary artistry over the decades, and it’s earned him all manner of respect even if his books haven’t sold all that well OR received all that much critical attention. I first encountered his work at a yard sale in the late 1980s, when I was blown away by a heavily, heavily thumbed copy of his edited anthology Going for Coffee: Poetry on the Job, which also had the inside-the-volume sub-subtitle An Anthology of Contemporary North American Working Poems. As a kid who’d been sent from a small town in the BC interior away to a British-style boarding school in the province’s capital, this was just utterly intoxicating, and he’s been a stated favourite ever since even if (deep breath) I didn’t always enjoy what I was reading of Wayman’s.

So yeah, absolutely his 2010 novel Woodstock Rising was longer than it needed to be, or at least would’ve been in another writer’s hands. It’s 450 pages of exposition-intense first-person narration inside the student activist community, and that’s not to everyone’s taste. (It’s also a love story about university students, mind you, and I loved seeing echoes of my own path as a student, much more recently than Wayman’s characters’ time!)

And yet no other writer was going to write exactly this story anyway, so why shouldn’t Wayman just do his Wayman thing? After all, Wayman’s narrator is named Wayman (as usual, in Wayman's poetry and fiction), and there are all sorts of biographical parallels:

  • author: worked at the Vancouver Sun newspaper during his undergraduate degree

  • character: works at the Vancouver Sun during his graduate degree

  • author: attended University of California-Irvine, graduating with an MFA in 1968

  • character: attends University of California-Irvine, hoping to graduate with am MA in 1970

And so on. My point is that Wayman’s telling a Wayman story in a Wayman way, so you’re going to get what you get.

For a 2010 novel, my sense is that it’s quite a meticulous fictional portrait of the heady times for students in the 1969/70 academic year, between August ‘69 and June ‘70. The novel’s fictional Big Events that more or less drive the narrative are just that, fictional, but Wayman’s careful to give readers a highly detailed narrative AND ideological sense for life inside the student movement in this tumultuous year. After all, it begins right AFTER Woodstock, and it runs through the months of the ebbs and surges of protest across the nation, especially among students. Among other things, I really appreciated the minutiae with which Wayman litters his depiction of life inside student activism, particularly the sources and variations of conflict among the threads.

That’s exactly what’ll turn off some readers, of course, the very large quantity of minutiae among what’s hard not to read as a misguided, doomed approach to protest and social change. I was very much HERE FOR IT, but not everyone will be, and as ever, Wayman doesn’t care much if he loses those readers who aren’t right for his approach. That’s just his politics and aesthetics, and I think it always has been: if you want what he’s offering, you’re going to have to want all of it, and when it’s fiction, you’re going to have to accept the broadest context he can persuade an editor to let him include.

For some readers, like my brother-in-law, I expect, who’s borrowing my copy already, this book would be a gem, and I think it’ll endure as an accessible, clear portrait of an intense time in Western activism, US history, and the path of protests. For others, it’ll be too long, but again, this book’s not for you.

Accept it, and move on, or maybe even consider reading something that’s explicitly not for you: it’d be good for you, and you might even come to enjoy yourself.

(Cross-posted from my Substack: long story.)


Popular Posts