Caldwell, Joseph 1938-
CALDWELL, Joseph 1938-
ADDRESSES: Agent—Sarabande Books, 2234 Dundee Road, Suite 200, Louisville, KY 40205.
MEMBER: Yaddo Artists' Colony (elected 1993).
AWARDS, HONORS: John Golden fellowships in playwriting, Yale University School of Drama (1956, 1957); American Broadcasting Company fellowship in playwriting; Rome Prize in Literature from American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In Such Dark Places, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1984.
The Deer at the River, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1984.
Under the Dog Star, Viking Press (New York, NY), 1987.
The Uncle from Rome, Viking Press (New York, NY), 1992.
Bread for the Baker's Child, Sarabande Books (Louisville, KY), 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: Joseph Caldwell's talent and promise as a writer were first recognized when he received two Yale University John Golden fellowships in playwriting and an American Broadcasting Company fellowship in playwriting. His plays have been produced off-Broadway and adapted into television scripts, but he is primarily known for his novels.
Caldwell's first novel, 1978's In Such Dark Places, received mixed reviews, although critics agreed that the book was the work of a gifted young writer. Peter S. Prescott commented in Newsweek, "This is a talented first novel, an honorable attempt at a significant work of fiction that I found hard to like," and went on to note that "the book offers some good characterizations, some unexpected wit, and is written in an admirably cool style."
The story follows Eugene McNiven, a gay, faltering photographer and lapsed Catholic from the Midwest, as he films a street pageant in New York City's Little Italy. As he is taking pictures of a Roman soldier he hopes to seduce, the procession dissolves into a riot that ends with the murder of the young soldier and the theft of Eugene's camera. Eugene is convinced that if he finds the young street kid who committed the theft, the film in the camera will show the murderer. Barbara A. Bannon wrote in Publishers Weekly, "Caldwell captures the gritty nuances of urban desolation and the accommodation people make with despair, but overburdens a frail story line."
In his next novel, The Deer at the River, Caldwell recreates the Biblical story of Job in a poor, rural New Hampshire setting. Noah Dubbins is a simple New England carpenter whose life is shattered when his wife goes insane. He attempts to keep his family together and remain faithful to her as crushing money problems take away all hope and almost cost him his children. A reviewer in Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide wrote, "The allegorical nature adds to the power of its impact, yet it is complex and often confusing. Perhaps the greatest strength of the novel is the marvelously realistic picture of rural New Hampshire upon which Caldwell stages Noah's tragedy." Paul E. Hutchison praised the novel in a review for Library Journal, noting, "Caldwell's writing draws its strength from imaginative similes and strongly drawn characters, rapidly creating a moving portrait of one man's family ordeal and one man's triumph."
With Under the Dog Star Caldwell returns to the desperate American rural life examined in The Deer at the River. A reviewer for the New Yorker called the book a "novel about greed and guilt" that follows Grady Durant's return to her family's failed dairy farm after her husband is killed while robbing a gas station. With her are her children Peter and Anne, both teenagers, and five-year-old Martha. The novel begins to revolve around a seventeen-year-old orphan, Royal Provo, whom she hires as a handyman. He is idolized by Peter and despised by Anne, who sleeps with him anyway, while Grady juggles two half-heated affairs of her own. The New Yorker reviewer noted that "Caldwell is good at conveying the menace implicit in his characters' misreading of their own and others' motives, and at describing creatures that manifest the changing state of the family's combustion: an old bull blocking the road, a puppy galumphing about a milking, a beheaded chicken taking one last turn around the yard." Ultimately, the money stolen by Grady's dead husband turns up, casting blame in improbable places. A contributor to Publishers Weekly wrote, "Despite lackluster passages, Caldwell strikes a consistently ominous tone, and his resolution is at once sharp and bittersweet."
In The Uncle from Rome, Michael Ruane, an undistinguished opera singer from Indiana, has come to Naples to play a minor role in an important production of Tosca. A request from a diva on the set gives him an offstage role as well: that of "the uncle from Rome," a fictitious character Neapolitans engage to lend status to weddings. By agreeing, Michael entangles himself in the overheated and dysfunctional life of contemporary Naples. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented, "Caldwell balances the theatrics of his plot with an understated narration, and weights his themes—the interplay of life and art—with careful, colorful observations. (Of laundry hung out to dry, for example, he writes: 'The bold emblems or the tattered banners sent out their jubilant or melancholy news, and one could tell at a glance who was favored and who was scorned by the local gods.')"
Caldwell's Bread for the Baker's Child, published in 2001, received strong reviews. A Kirkus Reviews contributor considered the book a successful work of serious literature, "As luminous and elegiac as it is probing and disquieting—and sublimely steeped in its Catholic milieu." The plot allows Caldwell ample room to explore the recurring themes of faith, sexuality, and violence that have marked his novelistic career. The story revolves around Sister Rachel, a nun who receives word that her brother Phillip has been jailed for embezzlement. She tends to her ailing mother superior in the donated mansion belonging to her order, which is soon to be disbanded due to declining numbers. A former elementary school principal, Rachel has recovered somewhat from the trauma of a fire that killed dozens of her students and their teacher, although the electroshock treatment (which Phillip paid for) that brought her out of disabling grief did so by robbing her of her memory of the victims' names. Phillip learns a key fact of prison life when he is persuaded to feign being the lover of a younger inmate to protect the man from their cellblock's predatory leaders. Although he is himself gay and landed in jail in the first place because he stole company money to help a co-worker with AIDS who had lost his health insurance, Phillip stays aloof from his "partner" until a sadistic guard pushes him too far. Now a convicted murderer, he is moved from medium security to death row. Rachel visits him only after the death of her elderly charge, when, with her dead students' names miraculously restored to memory, she brings him solace in the form of details of a family tragedy long ago. Margaret Flanagan praised the book in Booklist, noting that "A disturbing undercurrent of unresolved passions ripples through this elegiac tale of tragedy and redemption," and calling it an "emotionally compelling glimpse into two shattered spirits [that] celebrates the triumph of the soul over disaster and despair."
Since the mid-1980s Caldwell has been associated with the artists' colony of Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, first as a guest and more recently as an assistant to the president. In 1993 he was elected to membership in the Corporation of Yaddo, following which the frequency and length of his stays at the colony increased.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Advocate, January 14, 1992, Felice Picano, review of The Uncle from Rome, p. 87.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2001, review of Bread for the Baker's Child, p. 1502.
Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, January, 1986, review of The Deer at the River, p. 5.
Lambda Book Report, March, 1992, Michael Klein, review of The Uncle from Rome, p. 22.
Library Journal, November 15, 2001, Patrick Sullivan, review of Bread for the Baker's Child, p. 96; December, 1991, Joanna M. Buckhardt, review of The Uncle from Rome, p. 193; May 1, 1987, Mary K. Prokop, review of Under the Dog Star, p. 80.
New York Times, March 13, 1992, Herbert Mitgang, review of The Uncle from Rome, p. B4; June 6, 1987, Michiko Katukani, review of Under the Dog Star, p. N13; May 4, 1984, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Deer at the River, p. C29.
New York Times Book Review, May 17, 1987, Linda Hamalian, review of Under the Dog Star, p. 51.
New Yorker, July 6, 1987, review of Under the Dog Star, p. 80; June 4, 1984, review of The Deer at the River, p. 133.
Newsweek, February 6, 1978, Paul Prescott, review of In Such Dark Places, p. 84.
Publishers Weekly, November 12, 2001, review of Bread for the Baker's Child, p. 96; October 25, 1991, review of The Uncle from Rome, p. 44; March 27, 1987, Sybil Steinberg, review of Under the Dog Star, p. 37; March 9, 1984, review of The Deer at the River, p. 100.
Sarabande Books Online,http://sarabandebooks.org/ (April 3, 2002), article on Joseph Caldwell.