Beyond the Satin Funhouse
Beyond the Satin Funhouse: Two by Dan Wakefield—Returning and New York in the Fifties: Reviewed by David Liljengren
“One balmy spring morning in Hollywood, a month or so before my forty-eighth birthday, I woke up screaming,” writes Dan Wakefield in Returning. Wakefield’s charmed life as a successful novelist, darling of New York literary circles and sought-after screenwriter, seemed headed for a rotten conclusion. He feared his end would come “as one of those bodies in the movies of Hollywood who float face down in their own swimming pool.”
The rot in Wakefield’s life had a familiar genesis. It came from within. His screaming, he writes, was a response “to the reality that another day had broken in a life I could only deal with sedated by wine, loud noises, moving images, and wired to electronic games. . . .”
Though seemingly safe in the satin funhouse of entertainment industry success, “he came to himself’ and saw that, though he was not literally slopping pigs like the prodigal son, he was bankrupt and in a far country and needed to return to a home he had not known for 30 years. On that balmy morning he calmed his screams in a way unusual for him. He searched for a Bible he had bought years before while a reporter in Israel. He read over the 23rd Psalm and found solace in the green pastures and still waters. Thus began a journey that would take Wakefield geographically back to Boston, Massachusetts, and spiritually to the loving God he thought he had jettisoned decades before.
Returning is a compelling and highly accessible spiritual autobiography. Wakefield’s tone is that of a friend, not a teacher. He is telling his story and not seeking converts. Wakefield presents the spiritual journey as an ellipse, a cycle of change in which we move purposefully away from, as surely as we occasionally stumble toward, the eternal one.
Wakefield left his childhood belief in God while at Columbia University to pursue a more glamorous intellectual nihilism. What I found most interesting was his account of what he feels was God’s pursuit of him, even as he rejected God. While researching his first book, he became a part of the activist Catholic Worker community in Harlem, then still run by its originator, Dorothy Day. While in Harlem, he befriended the Rev. Norman C. Eddy, a white-bread Protestant minister who spent his life working with heroin addicts in Spanish Harlem. While covering stories of the ongoing violence in the Middle East, Wakefield had occasion to work both as a shepherd and as a fisherman, two incidents that would later illustrate the Bible passages dealing with those occupations. Throughout the incidents, Wakefield was an avowed atheist Neither one alone served to bring Wakefield back into the fold, but he presents them as steps on a journey prepared for him, which would one day bring him back.
In Returning, Wakefield is highly critical of two prevailing illusions held by the post-war intelligentsia: the de rigueur alcoholism of the literary community and the substitution of Freudian analysis for God as the sole transformative power in human life. Alcohol clearly hampered Wakefield and the other talented literary figures of his generation. Wakefield’s lengthy Freudian analysis ended in a waking nightmare he sought to calm with more alcohol. The harshest passages in Returning are reserved for his debunking of those illusions.
New York in the Fifties, Wakefield’s most recent book, takes a different tack. In this memoir of his years in New York City, he speaks more peacefully, without judgment or rancor, of the Greenwich Village literary community. Though this book is more likely to be of interest to those curious about the coiled literary power latent in that community in its heyday, fans of Dan Wakefield are treated to a more in-depth discussion of the Catholic Worker community and the patient work of the Rev. Norman Eddy, whom Wakefield paints as an unsung hero of the armies of grace.
In Returning and New York in the Fifties, Dan Wakefield is presenting himself as a man making peace with his past. Not only his clarity and skill as a writer but also his success in illuminating the struggles that are common to us all keep us interested in this process. We are invited to see our own lives as a journey, to examine our moments of closeness to God as well as those deathly moments of seeming exile, and to see them all as part of a larger plan that can only unfold through. the living of our lives.