The New York Times, June 12, 2015
Chased out of many a yard, the title character of William Goyen's 1947 short story "The White Rooster" has torn his feathers and "so tired himself that whatever he found to eat in random places was not enough to keep any flesh on his carcass." Yet he keeps foraging, foiling society's best efforts to extinguish him, and each new day finds him crowing, "a carillon-like sound" that bursts from "his straggly throat." Even as he nears death, he is "most vividly alive, in some courageous way."
All of which makes him a useful emblem for Goyen himself, who made some sweet sounds of his own, including a breakout 1950 novel called "The House of Breath," and went on to enjoy the mixed rewards of being a writer's writer. He published for little or no money, subsisting on grants, teaching gigs and the occasional family loan. He fell well short of the literary celebrity he craved. He drank too much—until he didn't, and then embraced Jesus in a way no evangelical Christian would have appreciated. But he kept foraging, seeking what he called "the buried song."
More than three decades after his death, his stubbornness finds its reward in this smart, admiring and attentive biography by Clark Davis, a professor of English at the University of Denver. "It Starts With Trouble" seeks to install Goyen in a literary firmament to which he was never able to gain full entry. On one side, he was acclaimed by the likes of Anais Nin, Northrop Frye and Joyce Carol Oates; on the other, he was dismissed for being too nebulous or "too damned sensitive for words" or "regressive, sexually evasive and necrophilic."
Goyen is hard to pin down regionally—Southern Gothic, only further west—and he's a tough first date, as the opening lines of "The House of Breath" make clear. "And then I walked and walked in the rain that turned half into snow and I was drenched and frozen; and walked upon a park that seemed like the very pasture of hell where there were couples whispering in the shadows, all in some plot to warm the world tonight, and I went into a public place and saw annunciations drawn and written on the walls."
It's easy, too, to lose Goyen among the boldface names he fraternized with. He was with Frieda Lawrence when she died. He had rivalrous friendships with Truman Capote and Carson McCullers. He may well have been the only person to sleep with both Katherine Anne Porter and Stephen Spender. Spender's wife called him "a man-eating orchid," but though Goyen's orientation seems to have been predominantly gay, his most enduring relationship was a late-in-life marriage to the actress Doris Roberts, best known today as the fearsome mother in "Everybody Loves Raymond," a character who would surely have wrung the necks of any white roosters in her garden.
It turns out that the easiest way to make sense of Goyen is to locate him, as Davis does, in the East Texas lumber town of his earliest years. There followed a purgatorial adolescence in Depression-era Houston and then war duty aboard an escort carrier. But Goyen's heart and art kept harking back to that "small-town paradise lost" and to the family members who peopled it. "If that is the kind of literature you are going to write," his mother told him, "I hope you never succeed (and you won't)." Goyen took that as a call to arms and for the rest of his days labored "to make the epitaphs for all things dead and so keep them alive."
Will he himself live? Only, perhaps, in the way that arias sometimes outlive their original operas. "The rooster came to the pansy bed so serene, even in rags of feathers, like a beggar-saint. ... He came as if he knew suffering and terror, as if he were all alone in the world of fowls, far away from his flock, alien and far away from any golden grain thrown by caring hands, stealing a wretched worm or cricket from a foreign yard. What made him so alive, what did he know?"