Years ago when I was teaching at Greensboro College, I attended a guest lecture by Doris Kearns Goodwin where she talked about her biography of Lyndon Johnson. What struck me most was her comment that Johnson had never felt truly loved by his mother. He told Goodwin in an interview how gratifying it had been when he was elected President to feel loved by the American people. A very fickle people, I’m sure he quickly discovered.
Few of us escape childhood without losses and longings. Sometimes our feelings of inadequacy persist into adulthood, motivating us to excel or try to be perfect. Others turn to alcohol or drugs to deaden their inner demons. In a play I saw years ago, Slow Dance on the Killing Ground the main character, Randall, a hoodlum and murderer, laments his life, excusing his actions because he was born with a birth defect, a hole in his heart. Late in the play he says this: the hole, that’s where love was supposed to be.
Here’s how Henry Beam, the protagonist of A Stone for Bread, describes the “holes” in his own life: “the run-down cropper cabin, his bullying brothers and schoolmates, the impoverished childhood with its litany of absences—of food and protection, encouragement or love. He could even re-create the gnawing in his gut, the hunger for something beyond food and nourishment, an insatiable craving of mind—as if God the maker had left out an essential nutrient of his being. Like the split bodies of Aristophanes’ lovers, the boy he once was had lusted after a lost mirror image. It was this, he believed, that urged him upward from poverty toward a dimly perceived vision of his true self.”
Henry follows that vision to a college education and early recognition as a gifted poet. But during a study year in 1950s Paris, the young man who kept to his books and never fought back is awakened to a surprising capacity for violence as he is slowly drawn into the orbit of a fiery right-wing French politician with a shadowy past. Henry’s story is in many ways a morality tale, a story of a man’s vulnerability to corrupting influences.
The great American novel on this theme has already been written, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. But new times call for renewed looks at how good people are seduced into corrupting behaviors. For that, fiction will always have its part to play. A Stone for Bread is my small contribution.
And yes, for Henry, there’s a woman involved.