You Can't Go Home Again is a novel by Thomas Wolfe, often considered to be his masterpiece. It was published in 1940, shortly after his death. The work is an episodic roman a clef detailing around 7 years in the life of George Webber, an obvious stand-in for the author.

I have made it a habit to read great works, and usually before starting them, I have some trepidation. Classics books tend to range from the tedious, through the "good for its time, but not of interest to me", up to the occasional gem that is just as entertaining and relevant as it is important and informative. At over seven hundred pages, I was worried about setting out to read this book, but I quickly and happily discovered that this book is in the last category. While it has a wide scope, it also has clear and interesting prose that drew me in. While there was a good number of characters introduced, they were clearly defined, and I did not (as is sometimes the case), only figure out who everyone was half way through the story.

But simply being clearly written would not be enough to recommend the book. What kept on drawing me in was the incredible relevance that so many of the descriptions and situations in the book had for me. The book is encyclopedic in nature, with the protagonist traveling between the South, New York City, England and Germany. In each place he visits, he brings up a detailed web of the social and political milieu of the place he visits. In some places, this is done with much dramatic irony, such as the description of America right before the stock market crash; and the dramatic irony (that not even Wolfe knew about), where the protagonist visits a nazi Germany that is thuggish and repressive, but has not yet descended into open genocidal insanity. And these are only the bigger points, because situations great and small, from a Manhattan cocktail party to working class London, are described with an observation and liveliness that makes these images come alive.

As a side note, one of the more interesting, and in some ways disappointing part of the book was how closely the descriptions matched the types of people I still encounter. I had thought that American society had transformed greatly since the Roaring 20s, but after reading Wolfe's descriptions of Manhattan in that time, I realized just how long hipsters have been around. I could write an entire essay (and perhaps will), on how the jaded intelligentsia of New York, right before the stock market crash, are tired of anything except for an ironic interest in a puppeteer and his simple puppet show.

I could write much more about various aspects of the book, and I am especially curious to find out who the various characters in the novel are fictionalized versions of, or what the underlying social and political views that Wolfe is trying to advance, other than a general humanism. But even without looking at the book as a text or a puzzle, it is still an engrossing novel, with characters and situations that the reader can easily relate to.

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