Dan Wakefield doesn't look much like a prodigal son.
We're sitting in the front room of his apartment in downtown Indianapolis, the hometown he left in exile more than 40 years ago. A white-haired man with a soft voice, Wakefield, 81, talks about Going All the Way, the novel that prompted his departure.
- Dan Wakefield
A story about two recently discharged soldiers returning home to Indianapolis and trying to figure out what to do with their lives, Going All the Way became a bestseller and won raves - everywhere but in the city where Wakefield was born and went to high school. When the book was published in 1970, Wakefield received death threats and hate mail from the folks in the city where he grew up.
The reaction in part may have been to its frank discussion of sexuality. The two young men in the story, Sonny Burns and Tom "Gunner" Casselman, spend much of their time thinking about, talking about and pursuing sex. Wakefield's friend and fellow Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut suggested before the book was published that the title really should have been "Getting Laid in Indianapolis" - which probably wouldn't have defused tensions.
Both Sonny and Gunner went to Shortley High School - a stand-in for Shortridge and Wakefield's alma mater - but Sonny and Gunner did not know each other well in high school.
Sonny was just another face in the crowd at the school, but Gunner was a 'Big Rod,' a sports star and a hero in the high school hierarchy. The two young men become friends mostly because they chafe at the era's social restraints. They want more, but really don't know what that 'more' is.
It was a bold book. Written and published at the height of the sexual revolution when Sean Connery's James Bond was the model for male sexual swagger, Going All the Way is riddled with insecurity and doubt. Wakefield had the courage to offer up a tale with a protagonist, Sonny, who has, uh, performance issues.
The other reason Hoosiers reacted so violently to the book is that it describes many places in Joseph McCarthy-era Indianapolis - and often not in flattering terms.
Wakefield isn't always forthcoming in talking about the book. A few weeks ago, when I interviewed him for a radio program, he downplayed the tumult the book created.
"Well, a lot of people thought that it was being critical of Indianapolis or Indiana," he said.
Now, in his front room, I tell Wakefield I want to talk more about Going All the Way.
He's relaxed, sitting in his own apartment with a cup of tea in hand and Miles Davis's "Sketches of Spain" playing softly in the background.
"Do you want to know if it's autobiographical?" Wakefield asks and offers up a tired smile. He's been down this road before.
"I wanted to write about what that time (the early 1950s) was really like," he says. "I wanted to portray how young men really talked and thought then - not the way they were supposed to talk and think, but the way they really talked and thought."
He didn't intend it as a literal portrait of the city, but people read it that way.
- A young Dan Wakefield.
Wakefield says, with a shake of his head, that there still are people from Indianapolis who pull incidents from the book and treat them as if they really happened. He mentions a scene in the book when Gunner and Sonny are barred from swimming in the Meridian Hills Country Club swimming pool because Gunner has grown a beard. People tell him they remember when that happened to Wakefield and a high school friend of his.
The problem is: it didn't. Wakefield pulled the scene from an incident that happened to someone else in California.
Wakefield says that he still doesn't understand what provoked the uproar.
"It(the book) could have happened in Cleveland or St. Louis," he says. He set it in Indianapolis because that was a place he knew.
"It's really a satire on the mores and attitudes of the time," he says.
That may be, but it is a book rooted in a particular place. While Shortridge was(mildly) fictionalized, other places in Indianapolis - the Red Key tavern, Meridian Hills and certain Broad Ripple neighborhoods - find themselves depicted with photographic precision.
Wakefield insists Going All the Way isn't a recreation of his young manhood. He says that he was nowhere near as shy as Sonny or as socially adrift. He wrote a sports column for the Shortridge student newspaper, where he engaged in a friendly rivalry with the paper's other sports columnist, Wakefield's classmate, Richard Lugar.
Wakefield's ties to the city didn't offer much protection when the furor over the book erupted. In addition to the death threats and hate letters sent his way, Wakefield also found his book banned in places in the city.
I talked with a mutual friend, Indianapolis Star reporter Will Higgins, about why a novel produced so much rancor. Higgins noted that the reaction Wakefield received wasn't that much different from the way Indianapolis rejected Kurt Vonnegut for much of his career. The year before Going All the Way appeared, Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse Five, the classic anti-war novel that appeared at the height of the Vietnam War and transformed him from being a highly regarded but not widely read writer's writer into a bestselling author.
Vonnegut also found his book banned and he, too, went through a period of exile from his hometown.
That means that Indianapolis, within the space of little more than a year, had turned its back on its two most prominent native-born writers.
"I do think Indianapolis is slow to embrace innovation," Higgins says. "It's unsure of itself culturally."
That's part of what prompted Wakefield to leave the state.
He first left in the 1950's to attend Columbia University. He stayed in New York to launch a career as a freelance magazine writer and soon climbed to the top, writing for The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Harper'sand others. Books followed - non-fiction at first and then, starting with Going All the Way, novels. Two of his novels, Starting Over and Going All the Way, have been made into movies.
It was the film adaptation of Going All the Way in 1997 - which starred a young Ben Affleck as Gunner - that removed the last barriers between Wakefield and Indianapolis, Higgins says.
"I think that this city, like any city, embraces success," says Higgins.
Along the way, Wakefield rediscovered his faith and wrote a series of acclaimed books about spiritual issues. When he was giving a talk on his spiritual journey, a young woman asked him if he renounced his earlier work - specifically, Going All the Way.
"I told her, 'No, I embrace it,'" Wakefield says, laughing at the memory.
The final tug that brought Wakefield home came last year, when he was asked to come back for an event at the Vonnegut Library here.
He'd lived since the 1950's in New York, Boston, Miami and then back to New York. In 2008, the year after the Vonnegut's death, Wakefield agreed to edit his friend's letters.
When he was back for the Vonnegut Library event, Wakefield realized he was tired of living in East Harlem and that he wanted to come home.
He found an apartment in an old building downtown, where, because he no longer drives, Wakefield can walk to everything he needs. He's settled into a comfortable routine, getting together for dinner often with old friends from Shortridge, giving readings at the IndyReads bookstore and leading workshops at the Writers' Center. He's writing another novel and working on getting one of his other novels, Under the Apple Tree, made into a movie.
Wakefield says he's glad to be back.
He says Vonnegut once told him, "Dan, we never had to leave Indianapolis to become writers. There are people there who are just as kind and just as mean, just as smart and just as dumb, as anywhere in the world. That's all the material a writer needs."
Wakefield smiles and then says:
"Kurt was right."