Stephen Gallup's Reviews > Angle of Repose

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
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's review
Aug 25, 08

really liked it
Read in August, 2008

Three or four years ago I read where somebody thought Angle of Repose was probably the greatest American novel of the 20th century. That bothered me, because I'd never heard of it. I bought a copy, got about 100 pages into it, and bogged down.

I'm proud to say I've finally read it all (parts of it several times). It is indeed a great novel, and more ambitious than some of the others one might think of as the best. But I'm giving it only four stars because of the length and the sustained effort required to get through it. Maybe this is my failing, but it's harder going than anything else I've read in a good while.

On the surface, it's the story of a crusty old guy, crippled both by amputation and bone disease, who chooses to piece together the story of his grandmother's life rather than think about the horrific "slow petrifaction" of his own body or other issues such as problems with his grown son and the wife who deserted him and who now seems to regret that. The grandmother takes center stage more than half the time, expressing her hopes and fears eloquently through letters she wrote throughout her life. When there are gaps, our historian steps in gracefully to recreate scenes as needed -- or to explain why he chooses to hold a few at arms' length.

I think what makes the novel significant is not the jarring comparisons of American life in the early 1970s with the way people lived 100 years earlier, nor is it the frequent migrations back and forth from the cultured East Coast to rough mining camps in the West, although both add. What's most important is the theme, hammered home constantly, that "home is a notion that only the nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend." To live in a place that is "safe, enduring, and right" is the best thing one could hope for. But unfortunately for the grandmother, again and again she found herself uprooted and moving as her husband sought ever more hopeless opportunities. "This is not our real home," she wrote in one letter. "We do not belong here except as circumstances keep us." She knew what she had lost. We're told, "Grandmother wanted her son to grow up, as she had, knowing some loved place down to the last woodchuck hole." The narrator looks at zany modern life, in which "places are interchangeable," and says, "I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to?"

There is much more, too, concerning for example issues like forgiveness (his physical rigidity is a metaphor). And at times the writing is graced with lovely analogies:

"The tape recorder whirring no more noisily than electrified time..."

"Rodman's face came into focus, framed in the door's small pane like the face of a fish staring in the visor of a diver's helmet, a bearded fish that smiled, distorted by the beveled glass, and flapped a vigorous fin."

"She came in like a reserve quarterback hot to prove the injustice of being kept out of the game."

And the examples go on and on. Do read it if you have some patience and an interest in how life changes and yet stays the same over the decades.
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message 1: by John (new) - added it

John Walker Steve, I read Angle of Repose many years ago. It is indeed a magnificent novel of the American West. For many years I taught history on the college level...and, of course, I had taken many courses on American history and the Westward Movement. But when I read Angle of Repose, the whole topic of mining in the development of the West suddenly came to life for me. In subsequent years I read nearly everything Stegner wrote, both fiction and non-fiction. I recommended Angle of Repose to all sorts of readers (I was a college librarian as my main job) and only heard positive comments from everyone. I also very much liked Stegner's book Crossing to Safety because of the aging theme's in the novel. But everything Stegner wrote from Big Rock Candy Mountain up to his last short stories are just so nicely written. There are/were many good writers that would be labeled as "Western Writers". But Wallace Stegner was and still is the very best. Since I was a librarian for about 40 years, my basic principle of reading has been that I would not re-read a book or a short story no matter how much I was impressed by the author. I did that because I was always trying to expand my literary scope. But now I'm retired so maybe I'll amend this idea. Stegner's Angle of Repose may be a good start thanks to your interesting comments.

John Walker

Chris A friend turned me on to Wallace Stegner recently and so I started with Angle of Repose and loved it so much that before I finished it I went to the library and picked up Crossing to Safety. What a brilliant author!!

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