When I read about how ostracized novelist Dan Wakefield felt here after the release of his excellent 1970 debut novel, Going All the Way (“All the Way Home,” in this issue), I was a little surprised. Sure, some of his fellow Shortridge grads were horrified to recognize themselves (so they were convinced) in his sex-crazed, McCarthy-era characters. After all, who wants to be guessed as the hot-to-trot ex-girlfriend who “did it” in the bushes outside the high-school variety show? But the legacy of Hoosier writers—even during the “golden age,” at the turn of the last century—has never been squeaky clean.
Take communist-leaning Terre Haute native Theodore Dreiser. Carrie Meeber’s tawdry-for-1900 life choices—leaving small-town life to become a “kept woman” in the city, for instance—were the only thing that kept me awake during Sister Carrie in high school. And as our excerpt from the forthcoming Kurt Vonnegut: Letters reveals (see excerpts here), some of the Slaughterhouse-Five writer’s family were too scandalized to even read his subversive success. Vonnegut himself often felt at odds with Indy and its values, only feeling accepted—and celebrated—here later in life.
Wakefield (who also happened to edit Letters) should have fit right in. Instead, his Circle City peers latched onto the backseat exploits of his two Korean War vet leads, Sonny and Gunner, instead of appreciating the themes that still ring true today: those confusing post–high-school years, when no matter your birthplace, you can’t help but wonder: Is that all there is? Wakefield deftly channels those sentiments through Gunner—whose deviant (for 1954) behavior includes wearing a beard (Pinko!) and daring to dream beyond Indianapolis. “I’d like to get away, see something different,” he says in the book. “Live in a real city.”
More than 50 years after leaving, Wakefield is back and living in his hometown—now much more the “real city” Gunner desired. Wakefield was even honored with a Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award in July, along with two writers who have thrived living here: Barbara Shoup and John Green, whose The Fault in Our Stars shot to No. 1 on the young-adult bestseller list. It’s thrilling to see the next generation of local authors making their mark on the world—and Wakefield finally getting the Indiana love he’s due.
Amanda Heckert is the editor of Indianapolis Monthly. See her bio here.
This column appeared in the October 2012 issue.