The Booky Man: A Long and Happy Life

Books Features

Much literary celebrity came to a 29-year-old North Carolina writer named Edward Reynolds Price in the wake of the auspicious first sentence of his first novel, A Long and Happy Life.

Here’s that memorable North Carolina woodland of a sentence:

Just with his body and from inside like a snake, leaning that black motorcycle side to side, cutting in and out of the slow line of cars to get there first, staring due-north through goggles towards Mount Moriah and switching coon tails in everybody’s face was Wesley Beavers, and laid against his back like sleep, spraddle-legged on the sheepskin seat behind him was Rosacoke Mustian who was maybe his girl and who had given up looking into the wind and trying to nod at every sad car in the line, and when he even speeded up and passed the truck (lent for the afternoon by Mr. Isaac Alston and driven by Sammy his man, hauling one pine box and one black boy dressed in all he could borrow, set up in a ladder-back chair with flowers banked round him and a foot on the box to steady it)—when he even passed that, Rosacoke said once into his back “Don’t” and rested in humiliation, not thinking but with her hands on his hips for dear life and her white blouse blown out behind her like a banner in defeat.

So, here you find Mr. Reynolds Price, a hotshot young writer with his shirt ripped off and his teeth bared, daring you to climb into the ring with him and his sinuous Deep South prose. Most critics did climb in, not to do battle but to simply raise the young writer on their shoulders. They went gaga, in fact, setting Price in motion from 1962 on to become the heir apparent in Southern letters to William Faulkner or maybe his mentor, Eudora Welty. It appeared Reynolds Price was destined to know, indeed, a long and happy literary life.

Mostly, it proved to be so. Reynolds Price somehow rose from one of those meager rural Tobacco Road North Carolina upbringings to get to Oxford—the one in England—as a Rhodes Scholar. He came home to teach at Duke University, both creative writing and the works of Milton, whom he loved. Milton’s physical trial with blindness must have proved inspirational after Price learned in the 1980s that a dangerous tumor grew on his spine. Radiation treatments left the author a paraplegic for the last third of his 77-year-long life.

Price remained remarkably productive even after he lost the use of his legs. He published some 40 books in all, including poetry, plays and scholarly works. One memoir, A Whole New Life, published in 1994, tells of his battle with cancer and of his whole new metamorphosed life in a wheelchair. The book is one of the great understatements of Price’s writing career—he was not a man for understated prose, as that memorable opening to his first novel demonstrates—and the biography stands as a testimonial to great personal courage and to a life wholly committed to the love of books and words and writing. The best for Reynolds Price came not long after his illness—he received a National Book Critics Award in 1986, for his novel, Kate Vaiden.

So you have an overview of the mostly long and happy life of Reynolds Price. But now comes a tougher question.

Will Reynolds Price enjoy a long and happy afterlife? I don’t mean the heaven or hell question, though Price surely considered that a fundamental debate in his own life. He was a Christian believer, and the morality and high-minded tones of King James and, yes, John Milton permeate his work.

No, the afterlife I mean is this one—what happens now, in 2011 and beyond, to the reputation of Reynolds Price? While on earth, he lived as a gracious, brave, uncomplaining and—yes—noble literary figure. He held a deserved place of esteem in his day. He tutored a number of literary figures who will go to their own graves championing his writing and charity. These disciples include Anne Tyler and Josephine Humphreys, figures who have earned tremendous critical respect and popular appeal themselves.

But I am one writer and reviewer who sees something in literature passing once and for all with Reynolds Price, who died on January 20 of this year. He’s the last patrician Southern voice, the last writer of an era. Close the book now on the age of Southern stylists who wrote about the world with such studied, sometimes strained, artful elegance, writers whose characters lived and died on the pages in—too often—insufferable nobility, writers who scribed of a South that existed when the region really was inarguably unique from the rest of the places out there. Reynolds Price seems to me, in fact, to be the end of Faulkner, the end of Welty. A noble literary end in his own right, but an end.

A newer school of Southern writing persists and has supplanted these older voices, important as they were. These writers sprout from the bitter vine of Flannery O’Connor. Look hard at where writers in the South (and elsewhere) lie in swaddling clothes, and you’ll see that the flint-spirited little lady from Milledgeville who lived under the curse of lupus for most of her short, decidedly not sweet life is the hand that rocks the cradle.

Please don’t accuse me of tramping on Reynolds Price’s grave. It’s simply my strong belief that the Flannery O’Connor school, existential and godly, old and modern, all at once, will prove to be more influential in the long run than William Faulkner’s and Eudora Welty’s and Reynolds Price’s.

Where do you find writers today who sound like Faulkner, Welty or Price? For all his brilliance and influence, Faulkner can be seen as simply another conquistador hacking his way through the prose thickets of a new world already discovered and mapped for him by James Joyce. Welty wrote about a South and a kind of human experience that you’d be hard-pressed to find or photograph today, in our kaleidoscopic 21st century. And Reynolds Price made grace central to his body of work. Grace—a most old-fashioned and unfashionable element today. Where do you find grace in these, the end-times of regional literature?

The problems do not lie in the works, which, indeed, tap the old verities, often in fresh ways. A Long and Happy Life explores the unsettled relationship of the young woman on the back of the motorcycle, Rosacoke Mustian, and her wild-as-the-wind heartthrob on the front of the motorcycle, Wesley Beavers. The novel uses birth as a framing device. The first birth is also the first death—the line of cars that Wesley Beavers whips in and out of in the opening section is, in fact, a funeral cortege, bearing the body of a young black mother who has died in childbirth. This dead mother was a childhood friend of Rosacoke’s, and her relationship with the victim and the relationships of other rural Carolina blacks and whites form the unchanging backdrop for the drama of the two lovers. (Race is always the backdrop in a Southern novel, even when it isn’t.)

Not much happens other than a slow and steady pas de deux between Rosacoke and Wesley, their halting steps aided or hindered in turn by rivals in love and goony family members and the unfailing strictures of moral codes. When Rosacoke abandons her code and physically gives herself to Wesley in a final effort to win him, the plot rushes along as if a dam has broken. By the end of this short book, we have the newly non-virgin Rosacoke playing the Virgin Mary in a local Nativity drama, holding the infant child of her female love rival while, one heartbeat at a time, her own out-of-wedlock child takes form in her womb. Will Rosacoke accept Wesley’s honorable (if hardly heartfelt) offer to do the right thing and marry her … or won’t she? It’s a hard question.

I have my own hard question to ask now. It’s an uncomfortable question that someone has to ask. I believe, in fact, that had Reynolds Price not been such a nice and noble and long-suffering guy, someone might have dared to ask it already.

What question? If Reynolds Price were 29 today, and this good and serious writer were to send this highly literary novel, with this daring, unspooling first sentence, to a major book house … could he publish it?

There’s no question of the book’s literary merit. That’s true too for Price’s other books, uniformly smart and moral and high-minded and well-crafted. The question comes from the other end of the question mark—it’s whether publishing, especially literary publishing, is so attenuated and risk-averse today that executives and editors would take the time and pay the cost to introduce a writer like Reynolds Price, as good as he is. Bottom line—is A Long and Happy Life a book that a publisher would be convinced could sell to the American reading public today?

My guess is not. My guess is that a book like this one would be turned down by major houses in 2011, as stylistically out-of-step with the times, as too literary for its own good. My guess is that Price would break into print today with something short of his original fanfare, less trumpet flourish, as a recommended selection from some university press or one of the quality small publishing houses like Graywolf Press or Dzanc.

Reynolds Price did his job. He wrote the truest words he could write about the truest world he knew.

But that world and the self-conscious stylism that a gifted writer could once use to describe it with perfect pitch … good reader, those are gone with the wind.

Charles McNair is Paste’s books editor and author of the Pulitzer-nominated novel, Land O’ Goshen.

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