Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 30, 2004
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Asheville, and Thomas Wolfe
North Carolina has produced -- or imported -- many fine writers and
even more merely adequate ones. But none has surpassed the achievements of
Thomas Wolfe, a native of Asheville, who discovered, and reported to us, that
you can't go home again.
(Of course you can go home, unless there's a restraining order. His point
is that even if you do go home, everything and everyone has changed -- the
home you remember is already gone.)
Wolfe died at a disappointingly young age, leaving behind some
memorable work but perhaps not the best he eventually would have been
capable of. But no one has more successfully mined his own life for fiction
than he did.
In fact, his work was so autobiographical that when his first novel
appeared, he received enough threatening letters from disgruntled townsmen
who felt (correctly) that he had portrayed them both accurately and
unattractively that he stayed away for seven years.
During that time, his growing fame brought so many admirers to
Asheville that the locals decided to forgive him.
(Which might give hope to Michael Moore that someday, somewhere in
America, some of the people he has insulted with his crockumentaries might
welcome him. But no, there's no comparison -- Wolfe was always truthful and
intelligent, and never mean. The opposite of Moore.)
Wolfe's childhood home, the boardinghouse his mother ran during the
first boom years of Asheville as a tourist city, had been preserved for many
years when nearly a decade ago, an arsonist broke into the house and set a fire
that left some feeling the building could never be restored.
Wrong. It has been beautifully returned to its heyday, complete with the
added-on porches and many of the original furniture and much memorabilia,
much as the house would have been in Wolfe's teenage years. It took a lot of
effort and money from a lot of people both in and out of government, and last
weekend the restored house was reopened to visitors.
The event was attended by many diehard Wolfe aficionados and six
writers with local connections. Greensboro's own Fred Chappell, former poet
laureate of North Carolina and one of the finest human beings ever to admit to
being a writer, headed the list.
Joining him were much-honored fiction writer Gail Godwin, Sharyn
McCrumb, writer of a magical series of Appalachian novels, Michael McFee, a
powerful poet whose work has taken him from Asheville to Chapel Hill, and the
current poet laureate of Tennessee, the folk poet and humorist Maggi Vaughn.
Along with a western-born writer who considered himself doggone lucky
to be sharing a platform with that company -- and then had the chutzpah to
read his own poetry in front of two poets laureate and a National Book Award
(And for my fellow Sharyn McCrumb fans, you'll be delighted to know
that her newest book is modeled on the Canterbury Tales -- but with a modern
saint. Joining other recent popularly-chosen saints like Elvis and Princess Di,
the saint who draws her characters on pilgrimage is none other than St. Dale.
And if you have to say Dale Who, you might as well sell your house and move.)
It was a delightful event, but if you weren't there, it's not like they're
going to rerun it next week for your delectation. The important news is that
the Wolfe house is open, adding yet one more reason for you to spend at least a
few days this summer in the town of Asheville.
Especially if you can be there on a day when they're putting on "A Day in
May, 1916: A Living History Experience." These ten-dollar guided tours take
you through the house, where you can meet actors playing people from the
period; their dialogue gives you a real sense of what life was like in an era that
is only just now passing out of living memory.
There's plenty of parking nearby, as long as the Renaissance Hotel next
door continues its practice of not checking to make sure that everybody in the
back parking lot is actually staying at the hotel. (Then again, it's a very fine
hotel to stay at.)
Asheville is a tourist town -- most of the downtown shops are aimed at
either upscale tourists with plenty of coin and a taste for lovely objects, or
downscale hippies and mountain bikers looking for something whimsical,
stimulating, or spiritual.
At the same time, the city leaders are working hard to keep it from
collapsing as so many charming villages have in recent years. There's nary a
Gap or Benetton or Sharper Image to be seen -- almost all the shops are
unique to Asheville.
That's not an accident. That only happens when the government acts to
protect a valuable public asset like a downtown with actual character.
Though several swathes of street have been uglified with huge parking
garages, the result is that there are places you can leave your car; and the
patches of wasteland are not so huge that it interferes with walking.
Gravity, now, that's another matter. Asheville is called a "mountain
town" because it's, um, in the mountains, and they go up and down. But if
you plan your route well you can avoid the steepest hills -- and what you find
is well worth the walk.
For one thing, the city has kept a lot of the buildings that give it old-timey charm (except, of course, for the regulation-hideous government
buildings and banks, and the aforesaid parking garages, the worst of which is
owned by BLT Bank, or whatever the letters are).
The sidewalks are also dotted with mini-monuments and sculptures and
antique artifacts, many with plaques that are informative and, sometimes,
entertaining. I was traveling with a ten-year-old who is an inveterate reader of
plaques, so I now know every single thing about Asheville that the city thought
I ought to know.
Another nice idea is that, unlike Greensboro and other suicidal cities,
residential use is encouraged right among the commercial buildings. For
instance, one of our favorite shopping areas, the Grove Arcade, has retail on
the first floor, commercial offices on the second, and apartments or condos on
the upper floors.
If only the city had had the foresight to require that parking garages
devote at least fifty percent of their sidewalk frontage to retail space, so they
weren't such block killers.
A few highlights of Asheville:
What may be the best chocolatier in the world is The Chocolate Fetish
(www.chocolatefetish.com), diagonally across the street from a great
independent bookstore, Malaprop's. Personally, I think you have to stop at the
Chocolate Fetish first, for their intense truffles, their amazing chocolate-caramel-nut frogs, their meltingly good chocolate-covered caramels, or what my
wife declares to be the best chocolate-covered toffee in the world.
Then, your chocolate craving either satisfied or piqued, depending on
how abstemious you were in the shop, you can browse for ages in Malaprop's,
delighting in a bookstore that has stuff that was selected for you by people who
are actually in that very store.
We found some galleries that had art we liked enough to bring it home
(notably the Asheville Gallery of Art), though they had this foolish idea that
love was not enough, and we had to sign our names to little papers that came
out of clickety machines. Ditto with My Native Ireland, which had fantastic
handblown glass but expected us to pay.
As we slowly -- no, quickly -- reimpoverished ourselves on arts and
crafts, we found consolation in the True Confections Italian-style bakery at
the entrance of the Grove Arcade, where you can sample perfect eclairs and
chocolate chip cookies -- or, if you're ten and don't like chocolate like one
strange child of my acquaintance, pizza by the slice, with an amazingly original
and delicious sauce.
At the opposite entrance, there's also Kamm's Frozen Custard, which is
so good you don't even care what it does to your body in a swimming suit.
We found clever, intricate, and beautiful furniture, crafts, and art inside
Grove Arcade, at shops like Morning Star Galleries, Mission at the Grove,
and Four Corners. Not to mention the antique piano store, the rock and fossil
shop, and the Warren Wilson Store, which supports Warren Wilson College
financially and philosophically.
And along the street frontage of Grove Arcade we lost our hearts to
Larson Porcelain, a mom-and-pop pottery store, the dishes made by the
husband and hand-painted by the wife. As good as anything we found in Italy,
though with designs that are truly their own.
If you're still hungry after snacking on chocolates and frozen custard and
eclairs and pizza, there is an amazing dinner to be had at the Market Place
Restaurant at 20 Wall Street. It can be a little dodgy finding it, but the fresh
ingredients are combined by a dashingly creative chef into meals that are truly
a fine art. The decor and the service are also excellent -- a restaurant that
would be noteworthy in any city.
But if you're in a hurry and not ready to linger long enough to admire
greatness, you could do worse than to stop in at the Mellow Mushroom. It
looks like a beer-and-pizza joint with hippie pretensions, and I suppose it is,
but their turkey sandwich has real turkey on it, and good bread; a worthy
casual meal, unless you lose your appetite at the sight of male waiters who
look like college kids determined to pierce every part of their face where they
can't squeeze out a teeny little beard.
Because one of our rooms was paid for by somebody else, we could afford
to stay at the Grove Park Inn, an old but thriving resort which, though it's
only a short drive from downtown, has spectacular views. It's expensive but
worth it, with good food at every restaurant, cheerful and attentive service, a
great sports center with a huge indoor pool, and valet parking.
We had big rooms with windows that opened onto gorgeous scenery and
mountain air (and the sound of people talking loudly down in the parking lot).
The curvaceous and cupola-dotted roof looks like it was designed either by
Gaudí or a hobbit. I felt like I was home.
On other occasions, though, we've stayed right downtown at the
Renaissance Hotel or the Best Western right across the street from it; clearly
the hotel standards in Asheville are quite high, and those downtown places
have the advantage of being within walking distance of almost everything.
One evening I missed my turn on Charlotte Street and kept on driving
out College, through the tunnel, and into a whole different Asheville.
This was the land of Taco Bell, McDonald's, Don Pablo's, and WalMart.
Gone were the refugees from Haight-Ashbury and the Friends of Bill we saw all
over downtown. Suddenly we were among mountain people. Folks who think
roadkill is how you get dinner if you're a bad shot, who'd rally to a "Don't Tread
On Me" rattlesnake flag, who are still angry over how the Whiskey Rebellion
turned out. Families that are watchful in the WalMart parking lot because
they've got a couple of feuds still a-simmerin'.
In short, Carolina Republican country.
You know, displaced Rhino readers. (Them as can read, anyway.)
That was a joke, folks. Please don't put nothin' scary in my mailbox.
After that we sort of got lost on purpose, driving through residential
districts where modest little ranch houses and a few prefabs sit right among
chalets and faux Tudor mansions and confused Mediterranean villas.
It's the forest that makes it all beautiful. You feel like Bambi and
Thumper are just waiting to leap out and die in front of your car, it's that
In Asheville it's consistently five to ten degrees cooler than the Piedmont
all summer, and, hard as it is to believe, it's got more shade. Along about
August fifth, it's gonna dawn on you that school's about to start and the heat's
about to make you crazy and then you'll remember this review and you'll thank
me all the way up I-40 to Asheville.