REVIEWSrnEscape FromrnGothamrnby Edward B. AndersonrnWhat I Think I Did:rnA Season of Survival in Two Actsrnby Larry WoiwodernNew York: Basic Books; 312 pp., $25.00rnWhen novelist Larrv Woiwodernmoved to a house and a littlernpiece of land just off State Highway 21 inrnthe loneliest corner of North Dakota, hernleft behind the world of New York andrnthe New Yorker for a part of Americarnwhich, if it conjures anv image in therncoastal mind, is that of “flyover” land.rnWoiwode’s time in North Dakota hasrnbeen spent mostly on the business of living,rnbut he has done some good writingrnas well. His most recent book, What 1rnThink I Did, is an unusual memoir forrnwhich his last work, Acfs, seems to havernbeen an exploration of sorts. The book isrnpart chronicle of a winter on his 300-acrernranch and farm (or “garden-patch” as hisrnneighbors with more typically Westernrnland-holdings call it), and part literaryrnmemoir. The narrative shifts back andrnforth between memories of Woiwode’srncollege days and early years writing forrnthe New Yorker, and scenes from the grittyrnday-to-day business of keeping livestockrnand family warm and fed during thernlong 1997 spring blizzard that will remainrna vivid memory throughout thernnorthern high plains for decades torncome.rnWoiwode has decided to heat hisrnhouse and ofifice-shed with a new woodburningrnfurnace that he has shipped inrnfrom more wooded parts. What mightrnseem like an inexplicable decision tornthose who have seen western NorthrnDakota has actually a bit more methodrnthan madness to it, for Woiwode has noticedrnthe rows of dying shelterbelts andrnwindbreaks planted over the decades byrnfarmers. Trees, like all other livingrnthings, have natural lifespans; he plans torn”cremate” those that have passed on,rnsqueezing one more bit of sustenance outrnof the bleak high plains in the best traditionrnof his predecessors.rnFacing falling, blowing, and deeplyrndrifting snow rather than the typicallyrncold but dry western Dakota winter, Woiwodernfinds himself troubleshooting thernnew furnace under trying conditions. Herntells the story of each soldering, eachrnleaking valve, and each buried pipeline,rninterspersing these with remembrancesrnof his childhood and youth. As he beginsrnto run out of wood to burn, everything becomesrnfair game in the struggle forrnwarmth: junk, old furniture, boxes ofrnbooks, dead chickens. Woiwode feedsrnthe tangible mementos of his memoriesrninto the furnace the way that he has fedrnthe raw material of memories into his ficdon.rnIn the second half of the book, thernNorth Dakota winter episodes becomernincreasingly sparse as the author writes atrnlength about his years in New York, hisrnearly stories, his first novel, and his encountersrnwith such writers as Borges,rnWelty, Updike, Mailer, and Cheever.rnThese intriguing events are stated simply,rnwithout a hint of embellishment. One ofrnthe most intereshng episodes has to dornwith his friendship with a young unknownrnnamed Robert De Niro whomrnWoiwode met at the end of his brief actingrncareer, hi a succinct assessment ofrnDe Niro as character actor and friend,rnWoiwode describes him as “a chameleonrnthat is trustworthy.”rnThe title of his new book being a retrospectivernturn on that of his first novel.rnWhat I’m Going to Do, I Think, one wondersrnif Woiwode intends this latest literaryrnproduction to be his last. Those whornmake their wav through his novels to thernmemoir will find not only the accomplishedrnnovelist, but also the arhst determinedrnto live a life in addition to writingrnabout it. Here is a man who reached arnplace in the New York literary world thatrnmany would-be writers would lie, cheat,rnand steal for. Yet he relinquished it,rnlargely to give his children the gift ofrngrowing up near a ghost town inrnwindswept western Dakota riding horses,rnrunning chainsaws, shooting pistols, andrnraising Rambouillets. As Woiwode turnsrnagain and again from his family’s life onrntheir farm to matter-of-fact narrativesrnabout the life of drugs, venereal diseases.rnviolence, rape, and fear in 1960’s New-rnYork, the value of this gift becomes plain.rnIronically, Woiwode is still something ofrnan outsider in spite of his North Dakotarnbirth, a person the locals feel they need tornlook out for a little: sometimes affectionately,rnoften uncomprehendingly, occasionallyrnresentfully. His nearly adult children,rnon the other hand, move with easernthrough the winter, across the distances,rnwithin the community, and in theirrnwork. And the father depends on them.rnOne thing cannot go without mention.rnWoiwode pays a debt of gratitude tornhis friend, mentor, and editor at the NewrnYorker, William Maxwell, who often keptrnWoiwode sane, fed, and focused in a coldrnand lonely New York, while helping thernyounger man find his voice, his mind,rnand his story. More to the point,rnMaxwell helped Woiwode find them inrntime for the author to write the books hernhad to write and still live the life that writingrnthose books made it possible for himrnto live. One senses that, withoutrnMaxwell, Woiwode might have writtenrnsimilar books and gone where he was goingrnas a writer, but by a longer, morerntwisted path, one littered with more personalrnwreckage. Given the egotisticalrnand insecure nature of most contemporaryrnartists, who can give credit onlyrnwhen it can be served up as career-enhancingrnname-dropping, Woiwode’s quiet,rnclear tribute is all the more remarkable.rnHis prose, at its best both spare and satiating,rnis nearly always at its best. EarKrnin his career, Woiwode says, he had arnglimpse of what he is after: “a prose trimrnenough to follow the swiftest physical actionrnwith ease, yet with enovigh svibstancernto pull a passage below the page into a dimensionrna character might assume . . .rnand the ability, now and then, to springrninto stratospheric reaches of far-flungrnthought.” With a passing memory of hisrnmother’s mother “wobbling up in focus”rnand then appearing “in sunlit brilliance”rnas he worked at his desk in Manhattan,rnthe author knew he had a story:rnI will write about her the way I’vernalways felt I should write, as if myrnlife depends on getting it right.rnEnough of fractured time and therngrotesque and multiple viewpointsrnAUGUST 2000/29rnrnrn