The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom From My Father on How to Live, Love, and See, by Naomi Wolf. Simon and Schuster, 278 pages, $24.
Naomi Wolf is one lucky lass. Oh, she’s had her share of troubles-like that time at Yale when Harold Bloom laid his “heavy, boneless” paw on her trembling undergraduate lap, traumatizing her into a two-decade long silence from which she could only be coaxed by a story contract with New York magazine. It can’t have been fun getting ridiculed as Al Gore’s color consultant during the 2000 Presidential campaign, especially for a woman who made her name decrying the image industry in a 1991 best-seller called The Beauty Myth. And Ms. Wolf’s most recent books, Promiscuities (1997) and Misconceptions (2001), were dismissed by the few who read them as self-important memoirs masquerading as sociology. But she has a big shiny mane of hair, rosy cheeks and a really, really great dad-and The Treehouse, her latest effort, does a lovely job of immortalizing him.
Still-does it have to take place in a treehouse? Why must every sophisticated, middle-aged urban person these days retreat to the countryside for personal growth and insight, like some lunatic pack of nouveaux Thoreaus? (It’s especially galling when you just know they have great apartments in the city.) Personally, I get more “insight” from 10 minutes of walking down 79th Street, any day of the week, than from hours sitting on a rickety sun-porch surrounded by the hum of cicadas. Ms. Wolf, however, had been craving relief from the exigencies of being Naomi Wolf-from “the public dog pit,” as she puts it-and so she purchased and lovingly restored a ramshackle homesteader’s cottage in the Hudson Valley, essentially morphing into a combination of Martha Stewart and Simple Abundance’s Sarah Ban Breathnach. She knelt over a humble pine staircase for days, scrubbing with steel wool and Goo Gone “as if scraping something from inside of me”-really, privileged feminist intellectuals these days make such fetish of housework, it’s a wonder they don’t become fulltime charpersons.
She spins out long, luxurious paragraphs on her maiden efforts with power tools: Naomi Wolf, meet Home Depot. On the cordless drill: “It felt heavy and awkward and full of potential …. I whizzed [it] in the air and felt an exhilarating buzz.” On the screwdriver: “It was solid …. At last I drove the screw into the drywall neither too deeply nor too weakly.” Sisters are doing it for themselves!
Ms. Wolf had the help of handymen in mud-caked overalls who inevitably revealed that they, too, were capable of deep thoughts and florid literary sensibilities (“Mr. Christian’s vision was the eighteenth-century ideal of the sublime in painting,” burbles his employer). Heartbroken friends arrived at the house to have their spirits refreshed-though apparently nature can’t fix everything: Naomi exhorts one divorced research scientist to buy a La Perla underwire bra, the kind that retails for three figures. Students and protégés visited, including a “spunky, fast-talking 24-year-old Hispanic-American with a sprightly expression”-Naomi was running her very own Fresh Air Fund. The adults cheerfully pitched in to build her daughter Rosa the treehouse of her dreams, subliminally satisfying dreams of their own. For “everyone needs a treehouse,” declares Ms. Wolf with sweeping benevolence-though those who can’t afford a country house might need to “build a treehouse internally … maybe it’s a seat on the train when someone is going to work,” or perhaps it requires lashings of Calgon: “in your bathroom, when you have drawn a bath and closed the door.” (Gee, thanks.)
Onto this familiar tale of bucolic self-discovery is grafted the far more interesting story of shaggy octogenarian Leonard Wolf- Rumanian Jewish immigrant, bohemian poet, teacher, former Communist, retired horn dog-a man to whom Naomi (or “honey,” as he calls her) was now, at a moment of unspecified personal or career crisis, ready to concede some central “Oedipal” struggle: “I was better at going on Crossfire,” she boasts ruefully-but her father had remained true to his artistic ideals, indifferent to fame and monetary wealth, self-publishing his work. His integrity, she suddenly realized, trumps her bullheaded, publicity-adept ambition.
And so Naomi attempted to lift the “portcullis of [her] rightness”: Appointing herself Leonard’s humble amanuensis, she transcribes his lecture notes (“Lesson Three: Destroy the Box”; “Lesson Nine: Your Only Wage Will Be Joy”) in a kind of Artist’s Way-esque penance for the crummy mediagenic books on which she’d squandered her literary gifts. (“I have made plenty of excruciating mistakes,” she admits.) She reveals that, decades ago, she turned her back on the muse, abandoning her own girlish poetry. “Let me hold the stone up to the light,” she writes, quoting from her juvenilia. Was it her verse that incited Mr. Bloom’s fumbling lust?
This being Naomi Wolf, it’s impossible to see The Treehouse as a simple exercise in quiet humility. Over the years, she’s hitched herself so savvily to publishing trends: The Beauty Myth coincided with Susan Faludi’s Backlash; Promiscuities limped along behind Mary Pipher’s study of troubled girls, Reviving Ophelia; Misconceptions rode a wave of nauseating mommy lit-would it be entirely cynical to detect in this latest effort a whiff of The Greatest Generation? Just a hint of the saccharine tracts of Mitch Albom?
It doesn’t matter, though, because as any daughter who idolizes her imperfect father will instantly recognize, Naomi has managed a heroic act in committing his life story to the printed page. It’s a pity that someone decided to package Leonard Wolf as an “eccentric” on the dust jacket, as if Oprah-anesthetized American readers couldn’t swallow as “normal” the idea of a man who smokes a meerschaum pipe; who favors beverages like absinthe, collects medieval Arabian astrolabes and spouts poetry from memory-“the man will quote Chaucer at the drop of a hat,” writes the daughter, using a cliché for which the father would surely reprove her (“Lesson Four: Speak in Your Own Voice”).
He seems a fascinating guy, coming of age in San Francisco during the boozy Beatnik 1950’s, hobnobbing with E.M. Forster, Eudora Welty and Anaïs Nin-an era Ms. Wolf can’t help but romanticize in contrast to her experience reading deconstructionist theory at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in the 1980’s (“years of bad hair and bad fashion, of bad food”). The Wolf tykes-and there turned out to be more of them than they knew: Papa was a rolling stone-were richly indulged, not with material possessions, but with boundless opportunities for personal expression, such as scribbling on themselves and cooking family meals. One night, little Naomi mounted a feast out of The Canterbury Tales, with heather fronds strewn on the dining room and “gobbets of cheese.” It sounds like an ideal childhood (though surely with dark undercurrents glossed over here), and Leonard a wonderful patriarch.
I wish Ms. Wolf had had the courage just to write his biography, without resorting to pastoral contrivances like the treehouse. But a straight biography wouldn’t have been as commercially viable as this inspirational book aimed at the “artist” that Leonard Wolf believes, with quaint faith, “inheres in everyone.” Presumably, he hasn’t seen American Idol.
Alexandra Jacobs is features editor of The Observer.