It Starts with Trouble:
William Goyen and the Life of Writing
by Clark Davis
University of Texas Press
$30.00 List Price
The piney backwoods of East Texas might be the unlikeliest place on earth to produce a writer like William Goyen. Cultured and restless, he escaped via the navy, and he might have easily become an artist who left home and never looked back. Instead, that “pastoral, river-haunted, tree-shaded, mysterious and bewitched” landscape loomed large, no matter how far he traveled. “Standing before great paintings in Venice or Paris, I saw my own people in Rembrandt’s, my own countryside in Corot’s, Europa was my fat cousin in Trinity Texas.” The son of a lumberman, Goyen, born in Trinity in 1915, spent his childhood shadowed by the Ku Klux Klan and tent preachers, but also enlivened by the rough poetry of Texas speech. He was a student of music and art, a bisexual, a theater person—it’s not surprising that he felt he couldn’t live in the place he’d grown up. But he couldn’t abandon it, either: “I accepted it as a kind of destiny and often as a curse.” This dual state of exile and homesickness became a defining characteristic of his work: Starting with his debut, The House of Breath (1950), nearly all of his astonishing, lyrical novels and stories reveal a love for that lost landscape and seek a reckoning with the people he knew there.
Clark Davis’s biography It Starts with Trouble, the first complete account of Goyen’s life, suggests that the entirety of the novelist’s work might be seen as “experimental spiritual autobiography.” This approach makes sense: A highly inventive writer of musical prose and intensity, Goyen “sought what he called the ‘living voice,’ the immediate, at