Larry Woiwode

A Step from Death

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A Step from Death Summary

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A Step From Death is a 2008 memoir by American poet and novelist Larry Woiwode. Addressed to his son Joseph—who at the time of writing was serving in Iraq—Woiwode’s memoir ponders survival and mortality, weaving these reflections into the story of his life as a young writer in New York and his decision to leave the city to take up horse farming in North Dakota. Hailed as “elegant and elegiac” (Kirkus Reviews), A Step From Death is widely regarded as one of the more significant works of the novelist best known for Beyond the Bedroom Wall (1975), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.

Woiwode opens his memoir with a vivid account of a recent brush with death. On an August morning, Woiwode wakes up and debates with himself whether to sit down and write or instead bale hay for the 14 horses he is raising on his North Dakota farm. Today he chooses baling. To get his ancient square baler working he has to cannibalize parts from an even older baler. He sets his power-take-off and climbs aboard his equally ancient tractor (no cab, Woiwode notes: he likes the weather; it feels as if he is experiencing more reality for less money). When the baler jams with rocks, Woiwode leaps down to fix it, without first disconnecting the power-take-off, something he has tirelessly warned his own son Joseph against doing. The baler snatches Woiwode’s jacket, dragging his arm inside. Woiwode survives, but with three broken ribs and terrible bruising.

This incident, Woiwode explains, has led him to ponder mortality. In particular, it has made him think about the advice he wants to give his son before it is too late: “Let me assure you, Joseph, before I say more, that I saw in you a son I thought I would never have and didn’t deserve—one who listens. That is why in this third version of a memoir it’s taken too many years to write, I’m peeling away every layer to disclose what I hope will be helpful to you.”

From here, Woiwode proceeds to tell his life story, beginning with his early days as an up-and-coming writer in New York City. The young Woiwode read a novel every day, integrating its textures into his life, shaving in the manner of a Willa Cather character and drinking black coffee like someone from Colette’s writing.

At the age of just 20, Woiwode found himself writing for the New Yorker under the legendary editor William Maxwell, who was “like a father” to the young writer. Maxwell introduced Woiwode to the literary scene: the author recounts anecdotes involving everyone from Robert De Niro to Susan Sontag, Thomas Wolfe, and John Cheever. At the same time, Maxwell instilled in Woiwode a particular literary ethic: “Get it right.”

This ethic informed Woiwode’s epic struggle to produce his masterpiece, Beyond the Bedroom Wall. Over ten years, Woiwode battled to “get it right,” to the extent that he was left with little energy for his wife or his two young children. Woiwode reflects on this choice in light of his son Joseph’s own literary ambitions. He also discusses his decision to leave the movie rights to his first novel in the hands of a producer who never made the movie (a better offer was made by Paul Newman in the meantime). It was born of a sense of honor, he writes, a sense that a man’s word is his bond—but it’s hard to say now whether it was the right decision or not.

In a chapter entitled “Sonship,” Woiwode discusses the many patriarchs of his own novels in light of his relationships with his own father and with Joseph.

One day, Woiwode “read in The New York Times that breathing the city air was equal to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, at a time when I was up to two myself.” He decided to return to his native North Dakota, to explore nature and the sense of place that informed his writing. He and Joseph built their farmhouse themselves: “We both stare at the oak floor it took a week to set in place, drilling and nailing every three-quarter-inch board above its tongue at the proper angle for nailing, and then days to finish it to its present sheen. We built this place and in it I built books and now build this one for you.”

In addition to his horses, Woiwode raises enough wheat to feed several thousand people. Still writing, he is the Poet Laureate of North Dakota. Now a year older than his own father was when he died, his thoughts of death are prompted not only by his own accident, but the memory of Joseph’s close encounter with a tractor—and the fact that Joseph is currently flying helicopters in Iraq: “I imagine death as a…stepping down to levels of loss, but death is an end, not the continuing dispersal I’m contending with.”