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Wakefield's Way: Dan Wakefield, 1932-2024

Dan Wakefield in 2017 2

Talking with Dan Wakefield about New York City's Five Spot jazz club at Wakefield's Indianapolis home in 2017. (Photo by Yael Ksander)

Dan Wakefield, the writer who passed away on Wednesday at age 91, had many friends and fans, here in Indiana and elsewhere. I count myself fervently in the latter category and only casually in the former, but to know Dan at all was to enjoy his warm and earnest way of connecting with people, both in his company and in his work. He was a sophisticated traveler of American life and a modest Hoosier, a spiritual pilgrim with his own strain of fellow Indiana author and friend Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist regard for the human condition. He could inhabit and bring to life places and people as varied as the Mississippi courtroom where Emmett Till’s accused killers were tried and acquitted (Wakefield, who covered the trial for the Nation in 1955 at the age of 23, was the last reporter still alive who had attended it) to New York City’s bohemian underground hive the Five Spot, rubbing elbows with authors and painters such as James Baldwin and Larry Rivers while checking out Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and other cutting-edge jazz artists. He was a fantastic story teller, on the page and in a room. He was a top-shelf writer all along, but I think only now, with his passing, will he get the wider acknowledgement and stature that he deserves. 

Wakefield wrote everything and wrote it well: reportage, fiction, memoir, cultural history, movie and television scripts, spiritual works, and for a final act, a young-adult biography of his friend and fellow Indiana author Kurt Vonnegut. I contend that the impressive range and achievement of Wakefield’s bibliography should rank him in the suitable company of his generational cohorts Baldwin, Joan Didion (who gave Wakefield the title for his bestselling bustout 1970 novel Going All the Way, a poignant and often-incisive look at Eisenhower-era Indianapolis that made the author a pariah in his hometown for a few years), Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. (In fact, the New York Times' Wakefield obituary quotes a critic’s one-time description of him as “Mailer without the rhetorical boom and self-idolatry.” The Times obituary is a fine overview of his life and career, but I can't help adding that Dan outlived its primary author by four years.) His notable books include his late-1950s documentation of Spanish Harlem Island In the City; the aforementioned Going All the Way as well as his novel Starting Over, which chronicles the divorce-strewn dating landscape of the 1970s; his account of the kinetic post-World War II scene in New York In the Fifties; and Returning, an autobiographical account of his journey from youthful churchgoing to atheism to renewed belief in his middle years. He was also the creator and main writer of the ground-breaking late-1970s TV show James at 15

I was fortunate to cross paths with Dan several times in my life, interviewing him for Bloomington’s arts magazine The Ryder in 1997, with the republication of Going All the Way and its movie adaption’s release both imminent. I sent him a copy of the article (reprinted at the conclusion of this post) and received a postcard from him not long after that of Pullman sleeper cars in Indianapolis’ Union Station, a location that factors in both the beginning and ending of the Going All the Way story arc. “Dear David, your piece in the Ryder was superb,” he wrote on the back. “You really ‘got it.’ I look forward to your future writing.” Whatever your craft or pursuit, such words from an older, respected and admired model in any field amount to a talismanic affirmation.

Dan’s move back to his hometown of Indianapolis in the early 2010s proved to be another turning point in his life.  He returned to his old haunt the Red Key (the bar at 52nd and College depicted in both the book and movie versions of Going All the Way) as both a customer and as a special guest for book signings and a radio show, Uncle Dan’s Story Hour, which eventually morphed into WFIU’s The Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam, allying Wakefield with saxophonist Sophie Faught for music and conversation about topics ranging from the Emmett Till trial to Indiana songwriter Cole Porter. The park at 61st and Broadway near his childhood home was renamed in his honor, with Indiana Senator and fellow Shortridge High School graduate Richard Lugar in attendance. Others can speak with much greater knowledge of what his later years in Indianapolis were like, but to me he seemed still vibrantly alive, appreciative of his legacy’s growing accrual in the city and active in its culture.

My WFIU colleague Yael Ksander and I visited Dan one February day in 2017 at his home in Indianapolis, to talk with him primarily about his experiences at the Five Spot in the 1950s for a Night Lights program I was putting together. The two-hour plus conversation spilled over into plenty of other areas, including Dan’s enthusiasm for the movie La La Land, the state of American politics, and the upside of following Jack Kerouac in a woman’s love life. (You can listen online to both the Night Lights program about the Five Spot and the WFIU Profiles interview that Yael conducted separately with Dan.) It was a memorable and deeply enjoyable day for us both.  

I saw Dan from time to time in the past few years at events in Indianapolis and in Bloomington, where he and Sophie Faught collaborated with WFIU on The Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam. At the beginning of 2023 I heard reports of his declining health, but he was in attendance when Indianapolis' premier art cinema venue Kan-Kan hosted a special showing of a newly-recut version of Going All the Way, with director Mark Pellington present as well. Dan was highly pleased with the revised film, which added new music, a voiceover, 50 minutes of deleted footage, and numerous editing changes that brought Dan's original text even more vividly to the screen. (The original 1997 release suffered to some extent from pressure to market Going All the Way as a sort of social-satire coming-of-age sex comedy.) "This definitive edition of the film feels like a completely different, more character-driven and psychologically complex vision," Pellington said when the re-release was announced. "It is a darker movie, but also far more sensitive and, ultimately, uplifting.” Along with the publication of Dan's Kurt Vonnegut biography for young adult readers, it proved to be a fitting and wonderful capstone for his career. 

What follows is the article I wrote about Dan for The Ryder back in 1997. I think Dan would appreciate the bittersweet feelings I had when I reread it so many years on, when I am not so much younger than Dan was at the time of its publication. What he had to say resonated with me then and even more so now. Discussing the long evolution of Going All the Way, Dan told me that “when I wrote that book, I’d been trying to write a novel for 10 years. I’d been trying and failing, and I felt like this is it, do it or shut up about it. If I was going to do it, the only point would be to tell the truth, all the things that people hide, all the things they say among themselves but don’t say in public. I wanted to write that life, of guys thrashing around trying to find themselves, a meaning for life, in a way that was true for that particular era." He succeeded, and in so doing yielded moving, humorous, and profound insights and moments that expand well beyond the book's characters and its cultural and chronological parameters.  It's no mean feat to write so accurately and with such empathy, to understand people so deeply in all of their aspects, loving, infuriating, wise, ignorant, all of the complex and often-contradictory elements that constitute human nature.  Dan Wakefield proved that a writer—or anybody, for that matter—can be kind and true at the same time.  

Wakefield’s Way: The Odyssey of an Indiana Writer

“You are at a turning point,” Luke Matthews said gently.

“Well then, I’ll make the goddam turn myself!” Sonny shouted.

         --Dan Wakefield, Going All the Way

Farther along we’ll know more about it

Farther along we’ll understand why

         --American gospel song used as epigraph for Going All the Way

Nobody was writing or talking about the Fifties in 1970. American Graffiti wasn’t even a pop-culture kernel in George Lucas’ brain yet, and what would TV offspring Happy Days have had to say about the bloody events of that year? (Whoaaa, secret bombings in Cambodia? Four kids killed at Kent State? Haay, the Fonz is not pleased.) One novel that appeared that summer, however, did cause a stir, precisely because it dared to talk with a candid wit and pathos about the era that nobody else was talking about. The book, Dan Wakefield’s Going All the Way, eventually sold a million copies worldwide, and its frank portrayal of adolescent life in early-1950s Indianapolis made Wakefield a notorious figure in his hometown. With the exception of one brief, secretive visit to see his parents, he didn’t return for 15 years.

“The reaction in 1970 was so mixed,” Wakefield recalled last week, speaking by phone from his home in Miami. “It got very good reviews in some places, but people in Indianapolis thought I was putting down the city. I wrote a new introduction (for the forthcoming IU Press edition) in which I point out that the book could’ve been set anywhere—Cleveland, Chicago, any Midwestern city—but Indianapolis was the place I knew. It was a place I knew and also cared about.”

Fast-forward to 1996, and not only was a film crew out on the streets of Indianapolis, turning Going All the Way into a movie, but there was Dan Wakefield, on the set, “breaking all Hollywood traditions,” as he said. Authors tend to be kept away like neurotic, fussy parents when their works are made into movies, but Wakefield was treated with the utmost respect by the film’s director, Mark Pellington. “It was just a real blessing,” Wakefield said of watching his novel come to life again as the crew and cast meticulously recreated the city of his youth.

“My previous experience was very ugly,” Wakefield said, referring to the movie version of his novel Starting Over. “I wasn’t even allowed to talk to the producers after they got the option. I think they felt guilty because they knew they were going to write a script that had nothing to do with the book. And that’s OK, I just wanted them to acknowledge the novel in some way. I ended up having to buy a ticket to see it when it finally came out. So I felt this experience was my reward for past suffering.”

Pellington had read Wakefield’s novel in high school during the late 1970s. “He said it was really about a lot of things he was going through,” Wakefield said. Pellington wanted to keep the novel in the early 1950s, and he wanted Wakefield to write the screenplay as well. The result, Wakefield believes, “is a movie that’s really faithful to the period and the book.” The film received good notices at the Sundance Film Festival last month, and will be released nationwide later this summer by Gramercy Pictures.

Wakefield has a quiet talent, a literary presence that is larger than one might first give him credit for. He has successfully tried his hand at all kinds of writing, including urban reporting (Island in the City), a TV series (James at 15), cultural history (New York in the Fifties), and spiritual autobiography (Returning). His first novel, Going All the Way, follows the existential footsteps of two young men, Gunner Casselman and Sonny Burns, across one Indiana summer. The Korean War has ended, Joe McCarthy is on the TV, and Dave Brubeck is on the stereo. Casselman and Burns do what comes naturally to 22-year-olds: they drink, try to get laid, and talk about the meaning of it all. Most of all, they wish to avoid being sucked into the dreary cycle they see all around them: jobs, parenting, and ultimately death. “Going all the way” means more than having sex. When introduced to an old high school buddy’s newborn, Gunner gazes in amazement at the baby and says, “Just think, some day it’s gonna die.” Sonny, talking to his mother, has an epiphany about what’s happening, what will happen, to both of them:

There was nothing you could buy that would help; no monkey wrench from the hardware store, no toys from the Five and Ten, not even any drugs from the drugstore that could change anything, really. Maybe just looking at the things, though, and buying a few of them now and then helped take your mind off the thing that you couldn’t change at all, which was that you were getting old, that very moment, everyone everywhere, turning into the person who would finally die and not be a person at all, no matter how hard that was to believe. Sonny knew it was true of his own mother; she had said it in a way, and he could see it. He was sorry, and yet it didn’t really make him sad down deep, because he couldn’t really believe it was happening to him, too.

“When I wrote that book, I’d been trying to write a novel for 10 years,” Wakefield said.  “I’d been trying and failing, and I felt like this is it, do it or shut up about it. If I was going to do it, the only point would be to tell the truth, all the things that people hide, all the things they say among themselves but don’t say in public. I wanted to write that life, of guys thrashing around trying to find themselves, a meaning for life, in a way that was true for that particular era. And I really didn’t care about how people were going to react; if they liked it, fine.”

The book appeared a year after Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and two years after John Updike’s Couples, two sexually frank and commercially successful books. Wakefield says those two books didn’t liberate him so much as the passage of time did. “The 1960s were so different, in manners and language, that it made it easier to see the ‘50s,” he said. “You go, ‘Oh, that’s what was going on.’ The irony is, when I was writing the novel in 1968 and ’69, nothing could have been deader than the ‘50s. People would say to me, what the hell are you doing writing about the ‘50s?”

Wakefield has seen many changes in his own life since the publication of Going All the Way. He once was as hostile to religion as the young protagonists in his novel are, and some urged him to change this content when he wrote the screenplay. “But just because I have a different view of life 40 years later doesn’t make it legitimate to go back and change the thinking of a 22-year-old boy who’s in rebellion,” Wakefield said. “And I wanted to portray the characters as realistically as I could, that we all have dark thoughts, mean-spirited feelings as well as generosity and love.”

Much of Wakefield’s work in recent years, such as Returning and Expect a Miracle, has dealt with the importance of spirituality; and one person asked him several years ago, “Do you now renounce your earlier work?” While Wakefield found that funny, he points out similarities in theme between Going and works like Returning. “The end is really about resurrection and beginning again; it’s very hopeful,” he said. “I came to see what happens to the characters as a crucial part of the journey. It’s not that you’ve gone off the path—that’s part of the path.”

At 64, Wakefield finds that his own path has taken him to Miami, where he teaches writing at Florida International University. He’s flourishing in the stage of life known as “getting older,” but says he finds this part of his journey confusing. “I have this theory that everybody goes around in their heads thinking that they’re 32,” he said. “Then you suddenly look in the mirror and go, ‘Holy God, who’s that old guy?’ I want to write something about this whole phenomenon of the way people age. I was at the gym the other day, and this woman came up to me and recommended Betty Friedan’s Fountain of Age to me. She said she’d heard Friedan talk about how wonderful it is in old age, and she thought I’d really enjoy that. I said thanks a lot, you made my day,” Wakefield laughed. “That’s your identity to people. It’s not that you’ve written 15 books and a TV series and have a movie coming out; it’s that you’re this old guy who might enjoy a book about growing old.”

There are other ironies for Wakefield in this era of his existence. “I feel better now physically and mentally than I did when I was 35,” he said, “because I woke up with a hangover every day.”

Wakefield had a lot of bad mornings until he was 47, when “one balmy spring morning in Hollywood, a month or so before my 48th birthday, I woke up screaming,” as he wrote in the opening sentence of his 1987 book Returning. That day marked a turning point for Wakefield, who had been drinking heavily for the past 25 years. He eventually quit, began to exercise and take better care of himself, and started to renew the spiritual elements of his life. Once again he found himself ahead of the cultural curve; Returning, considered rather unique when it was published in 1987, portended a flood of books into the marketplace that dealt with spiritual issues.

“There’s more recognition of those issues now,” Wakefield commented. He admires fiction writers such as Reynolds Price and Ron Hansen whose characters struggle with religious and spiritual issues in their daily lives, “in a way that seems a natural part of the story, not something that’s been imposed on it.” One of the books Wakefield admires most, however, is much older: William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. “I wrote about it in Returning, the relief of seeing that other people had had the same experiences I’d had; just the way he wrote about religious experience as something real, is rare from a psychologist’s or academic’s viewpoint. Though it’s not as rare now.”

Wakefield’s next book will be a kind of sequel to Returning, he says.  Its working title is Going On the Way. “Returning was about re-discovery of the spiritual, the excitement, the history of that,” Wakefield said. “Then of course comes the long haul—you know, it’s not always that exciting, not always a good experience. It’s been 17 years since I went back to church. How do you stay connected, how do you keep that spiritual dimension in your life?”

After he finishes that book, Wakefield plans to return to the Gunner and Sonny characters from Going All the Way. “I’d like to write two more novels about them, one where they’re in the mid-life crisis, and one where they’re old guys. Mark Pellington was the one who gave me the idea. We were talking one night, and he said, ‘What I’d like to see is when one of them gets their first divorce. What’ll that be like?’ I feel like that book, those characters are the closest I’ve come to getting to the heart of things, and it’s a wonderful thought to think of going back to it. Part of the reason is the whole refreshment of the movie and the way those guys (Pellington and producer Tom Gorai) approached it.”

Going All the Way ends with a one-word command: “Begin.” For Wakefield, the republication of the novel by the IU Press and the forthcoming movie version mark not another beginning, but a “continuation,” as he called it. In a new preface that he wrote for the IU Press edition, he says that the book

is about friendship. It’s also about seeking, questioning, risking, rising from despair and defeat, beginning again, finding the joy and love of being alive, in the moment, as Sonny Burns does in the end, when he is able to experience and appreciate the taste of pumpkin pie, the smell of coffee, the scene and color of autumn leaves, the flow of life that is moving within him, moving him on, again, to begin.

We will all grow old and die. There will be no second act, no sequel, in any kind of form that is familiar to us. The recognition of this simple, obvious fact is the most difficult, enduring challenge of our existence. “Ain’t it funny how you feel, when you’re finding out it’s real?” Neil Young sang in “Sugar Mountain”; it, too, could serve as an epigraphy for Going All the Way. In the face of our inexorable fate, what should we do with our lives? We can “only connect,” as E.M. Forster urged. For Wakefield and others, writing and religion are ways of making this connection, of daily resurrecting our abilities to live. Only awaken. Only begin.

(This article originally appeared in the March 1997 issue of The Ryder.)

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