It's hard for a book that comes so highly recommended to avoid ultimately being a bit of a disappointment, but Joe Klein's fine biography of Woody Guthrie does just that. Full-bodied and balanced, "Woody Guthrie: A Life" gives a very complete picture of an amazing life. The only disappointment here is reaching the end, both of Klein's book and of Guthrie's fascinating life.
Klein's extensive research is the first key to this book's success; he is able to show so many different sides of one of America's greatest songwriters that Guthrie becomes ever more complex even as he becomes ever more human. Equally as important, though, is the manner in which Klein unblinkingly and impartially tells the bad along with the good. So what comes out in the long run is exactly how brilliant, industrious, flighty, difficult to live with, insufferable, and ingenious Woody Guthrie was. Klein's prose and its conversational ease spin out this long yarn, detours included, in a fluent and friendly tone that reflect well the topic at hand.
Readers expecting mere annotations to Guthrie's music will be surprised to find much more in this book--I know I was. I was shocked to be allowed a glimpse into familial and erotic life. None of this interested me at first, and even seemed like an unwanted accompaniment to the real story of the music, but Klein quickly makes it clear that this corner of Guthrie's life had its own impact on his creative energies in every other area, and the gaps get filled in.
This completeness contributes to a portrait that quickly overgrows the confines of a single American life, for Guthrie's story is in many ways the complex story of America in the last century. Klein's telling of this story allows us a glimpse into histories we've forgotten or have been allowed to forget. How many of us knew, for example, that there were 3 million communists in the USA before WWII? Their history has been muted for a long time, but their role and the role of labor unions in the formation of America--and their quick and precipitous decline--play continually in the background of this biography.
I highly recommend this book not just as a biography of Woody Guthrie but as a mapping of the American 20th century, as an explanation of how we became what we are and how we're still becoming, of how far we've come and how far we still have to go.