“He looks like the kind of guy that would knock over the water pitcher to get to the potatoes … “
— Philanthropist Henry Rollins on Thomas Wolfe
“I remember reading a chunk of Wolfe’s Of Time and the River on stage in Asheville,” Henry Rollins recalled by phone recently.
No one at that bygone show, he laments, could relate. And at this, he’s utterly baffled.
“All that people seemed to know was that Thomas Wolfe was a famous writer who came from Asheville, and that his house is down the street.”
Then, the former Black Flag and Rollins Band front man turned author, publisher and stand-up philosopher takes a huge breath.
“Geeeeez,” he bellows in frustration.
Of Time and the River is the sequel to Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe’s famously dense, lushly detailed autobiographical novel that narrates protagonist Eugene Gant’s escape from the small North Carolina town of Altamont (Asheville) to the author’s real-life retreats — Harvard, New York and the like. But most readers today never reach the River.
“Look Homeward, Angel is a pretty mighty tome — it’s a wounded-dog-sized book — and I guess it’s a little intimidating,” Rollins finally allows.
The also-wordy Rollins is, maybe not that shockingly, a great fan of Wolfe.
After the Old Kentucky Home — the one-time boarding house that became Wolfe’s boyhood residence, and is now a popular tourist attraction — was half-destroyed by arson in July 1998, Rollins donated the proceeds from a few of his local sold-out spoken-word shows to aid in restoring the place. Rumors put the contribution at $10,000-$20,000 or higher, but Rollins denies knowing the amount. Anyway, he prefers to spew about other issues.
“Do you know if they ever caught that guy?” he asks, seething with the barbed sarcasm characteristic of his onstage persona. (The answer’s no; see Jeff Ashton’s piece for more about the restoration of the Old Kentucky Home.)
“I can’t help but wonder if [the arsonist] really knows the historical relevance of what he did,” continues Rollins. “You expect a monster, but it’s usually just some boring-looking idiot with too many Budweisers in him that torches a place. You go, ‘Why’d you do that?’, and he says, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s it? That’s the end of the mystery? It was just some f••king guy? I was hoping for fangs and a tail.”
His bewildered anger is understandable. For a certain type of reader, the verbose poetry characteristic of Wolfe’s work provides more than just a good yarn — it’s a free ticket into another time. Rollins, for instance, has long been a fan of the Lost Generation writers, particularly Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But in recent years, he’s become even more outspoken about his love of Wolfe’s fiction.
“I’m not really a writer,” says Rollins, when confronted with the artistic gulf between Wolfe’s loquacious delicacy and the steamroller style that dominates his own monologues. “I’m a guy who writes. There is a huge difference.”
He’s also a guy who reads. A zealot’s fire burns in Rollins’ already-raspy voice when he discusses one of his favorite passages from Look Homeward, Angel.
“[It’s] where Eugene Gant, the Thomas Wolfe character, loses his virginity to a woman inside his mother’s boarding house. He describes going back into the sleeping-porch area because he’d rather be alone — and because the memory was more vivid and better than the actual experience.
“I’ve been to the room where that went down,” Rollins reveals, referring to the personal tour he got when he came through town several months ago. He’s excited that the house will soon be reopened to the public — giving the author’s fans back a part of Wolfe that can’t be experienced from the black-and-white photos staring back from his books.
The final subject gets Rollins rolling all over again.
“You see all these photos of Wolfe, and he’s just standing there in these clothes that it looked like he had already grew out of. You want to ask, ‘What, did he grow since this morning?’ It’s like he couldn’t find the right tailor, and if he moves his arm, he’s going to tear his jacket.
“He looks like the kind of guy that would knock over the water pitcher to get to the potatoes at a dinner table,” Rollins gushes on with his trademark cheerful aggression. “He’d want to eat all the food, drink all the water, say all the words and hear all the stories. And then, he’d want to run back and write 5,000 words about dinner.
“There was so much life bursting from him,” Rollins adds, sympathetically, “so much lifeblood dripping from Wolfe’s writing, where your only problem is that you have too much to write.
“On some days,” he concludes, “you wish for that.”
Thomas Wolfe Memorial Reopening Celebration
Friday, May 28
• Rededication and ribbon cutting (10 a.m.-12 p.m.), Thomas Wolfe Memorial (52 N. Market St.). Guest speakers include Asheville Mayor Charles Worley, novelists Gail Godwin and Orson Scott Card, and Tennessee Poet Laureate Maggi Vaughn.
• Book signing and reception, with Sharyn McCrumb at Captain’s Bookshelf (1-3 p.m.); Gail Godwin at Captain’s Bookshelf (3-5 p.m.); and Orson Scott Card at Malaprop’s Bookstore (2-5 p.m.).
• Historic Photograph Exhibit, ongoing at YMI Cultural Center.
• Authors’ Evening (7-9:30 p.m.), Asheville Community Theatre, $15, with Fred Chappell, Gail Godwin, Sharyn McCrumb, Maggi Vaughn, Orson Scott Card and Michael McFee.
Saturday, May 29
• “A Day in May 1916″ (10 a.m.-4 p.m.), living-history reenactment, TWM, $5.
• Book signing and reception (3-6 p.m.), Malaprop’s Bookstore, for Fred Chappell, Maggi Vaughn and Michael McFee.
• Performance of Thomas Wolfe’s Welcome to Our City (8 p.m.), YMI Cultural Center, $12. (Directed locally by Bernie Hauserman, this play was Wolfe’s response to what he saw as the dislocation of Asheville’s African-American community in the wake of the 1920s real-estate boom.)
Sunday, May 30
• “A Day in May 1916″ (1-4 p.m.), TWM, $5.