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PREFACE: A PLACE TO STAND
A "young novelist" is a contradiction in terms. The subject and essence of a novel is inevitably time, its motions and effects on the shapes and actions of human creatures and the scenes they inhabit. Any hope of comprehending, ordering, and exhibiting such clandestine and gradual effects is dependent upon intense and deeply registered personal witness. Premature skills in music, graphic art, oral expression, mathematics, even lyric poetry are not rare. But a child prodigy of the novel is almost unthinkable, even now when prose-narrative techniques are commonplace items in grade-school curricula. Raymond Radiguet's The Devil in the Flesh, produced at the age of seventeen, stands almost alone (and isn't it significant that Radiguet was dead at twenty?). A glance through the lists of serious novelists is likely to show first novels emerging late in the third decade of life, towards age thirty. Even the most uncanny of fictional debuts waits till age twenty-nine Emily Brontë's in Wuthering Heights, a first and only novel, cyclonic in intensity.
Intensity is never the problem. Most five-year-olds are already the managers of bank vaults of memory, indelibly etched. The generally overwhelming dilemma for a young aspirant to the novel is perspective, distance, literal length-of-deposit in the vault. Those images of crucial stasis and gesture that any child hoards as his debit and capital seem to demand long submersion in the lower reaches of the mind the zones in which transformation can occur; the alchemies beyond any conscious control that may in five, ten, or forty years accomplish an altered deliverable object, larger and more useful than the initial private matter. Anyone younger than, say, twenty-five is unlikely therefore to have had sufficient time for the unconscious marinade of the first experiences of adult life, the passions and desolations of adolescence. Hence the classic subject matter of the apprentice short story childhood and youth. And external pressure is generally required to extract even those, the pressure of class assignment or other undeniable request.
In the spring of 1955, I was twenty-two years old, a senior at Duke University, enrolled in William Blackburn's English 104 (Narrative Writing). For nine years I had been writing sporadically but with some persistence first, plays and film scripts (in the never-realized hope of directing my friends in productions), a few short stories and sketches, numerous high-minded school-newspaper editorials, a steady issue of poems in direct proportion to the hormonal drench and ensuing bafflement of the decade. Only the poems, and a partially autobiographical story called "Michael Egerton," bore any obvious relation to my visible experience; and that relation had made them the most difficult experiments I'd tackled most of the plays and prose narratives had been in the nature of fantasy and therefore as easy as warmwater floating. In my first three years of college, I'd continued to think of myself as a writer; but though "Michael Egerton" and a few poems of love and solitude surfaced, I'd gladly accepted the pressure of course-work as an excuse for not writing. Only the idle summers at my parents' quiet and congenial house a room of my own, no insistence that I take a moneymaking job forced me to confront the fact that I had no presently accessible subject for narrative prose. I recall a good many vacant hours, prone in my locked room, gasping at the ceiling like a ravenous carp. Time, I'd suspected and all my reading assured me would furnish the food at its own wise rate. Till the day of delivery then, I had worked at my courses with a fervor that was two parts natural bent and two parts dread of the hot wind blowing our way in those days the Korean War draft and its aftermath, Khrushchev and Berlin. Most of my male contemporaries were enrolled in the various officers-training corps to insure four uninterrupted years of college. On the advice of the state director of Selective Service, I had tight-roped on a shaky line of grades, gambling on an armistice.
Three weeks after my twenty-first birthday, my father had died of lung cancer. Less than a month before, he had seemed his normal strong self a fifty-four-year-old traveling salesman in improving financial condition after twenty-old years of serious straits, a desperate lover of family, a cured alcoholic, a ceaseless hypochondriac, a brilliant natural mime and verbal wit. From the day of the confirmed diagnosis, he requested, quietly but firmly, as much of my presence as I could give. We had not been a casual father-and-son. With all his laughter, his compulsion to win love through performance, he was late-Victorian in his sense of self and dignity. Neither my younger brother nor I romped on his large immaculate body. He played few child's games with us; we were treated from birth like confirmed, if fragile, adults. But from the age of five, I'd been conscious that my own birth a first child and a dangerous labor had been the occasion of his soon-successful undertaking to abandon alcohol. And our always unstated awareness of that mutually sacrificial bond proved stronger than either of us had suspected.
In the final two weeks of his life, I was with him more or less steadily; and in the ghastly aftermath of the removal of his lung, I spent all the nights on a chair in his hospital room, his main companion through the rush of mutilations and reductions that killed him. On the night before his death, however, I accepted my mother's persuasion and went home to bathe and sleep. When Father discovered my absence, he raged and lashed in his oxygen tent till they phoned me at dawn and urged my return in the hope of calming him. Once I was back and he'd seen me, he sank without a word into deep sleep. The day was Sunday and numerous witnesses passed in and out, his sisters, various relations of my mother, doctors, nurses, short visits from my mother (who continued to respect his implicit demand to have mainly me now, telling herself he was sparing her the gasping sight). Whenever I'd leave his side for a moment, I'd find a small clutch of kin at the door, quietly searching me for omens. And always beyond them, across the hall, the open door of another patient's room.
I no longer recall who the patient was male or female, young or old but in traditional rural fashion, other members of the family had set up a rudimentary yet thriving brand of housekeeping in the rented room. Their patient left them sufficient relaxed time in which to stare nakedly at my father's door, presumably on the chance of catching a view unusual enough to redeem their wait. I remember three young men who looked like brothers, all with long necks and thick country-skin. There seemed to be no women in attendance, not in my recollection I was partly repelled by their eavesdropping but secretly helped by their obvious sense that I was the main visible actor in a veiled but plainly serious drama.
Just after dark I was back in Father's room with my friend Patricia Cowden. The nurse had gone to get his next sedative. I sat by the bed and held his left wrist; he'd never stirred since morning. A thin thready pulse was the sign of life. Suddenly, beneath my fingers, it stopped. The body enacted a long convulsion. A half-hour later as we left the room for the final time, our country watchers were undauntedly in place, upright in their open door, unblinking as we passed.
Three weeks into official adulthood then, I had seen, at the closest possible range, a death I'd feared since infancy. His mortality had been both a frightening and a comic mutual concern. One of my earliest clear memories is of the night when he powdered his hair, came into my room, and sang "When I Grow Too Old To Dream" (I'd recently deduced that gray hair meant age; I was three and he was thirty-six, just at the end of his drinking and well before he developed its substitute, hypochondria the dread and hope of death). In the dazed months that followed a return to college work, a summer of study at Harvard, new expectations at home I did not suspect that a gear had engaged and was waiting to turn.
But almost exactly a year after the death, two things conspired. First, as I've mentioned, was the necessity to produce a final short story for William Blackburn's class (in the fall semester I had only revised "Michael Egerton," a story conceived three years before). Second was the sort of apparent accident that eventually seems a peculiar gift of writers. I had gone to Duke Hospital to visit an ailing friend; and as I walked through the usual stunned population of hospital corridors, I encountered the nameless trio of men who'd stared so fixedly at my father's door. They were coming towards me, no visible purpose; and as I passed, they showed no recognition. Were they there a year later, in another town, with the same sick kinsman? Did they have any real home or merely haunt hospitals, doomed to watch pain? Were they actual men? Were they messengers to me? Unconsciously I chose the last question and answered Yes. I would let them signal my move into sustained work; they would be both fuel and steering column. In a matter of days, I was planning their story.
Yet it never was theirs. By a process I can no longer reconstruct, I began to generate a fictional center a girl who had not been part of their family. The name of a fellow student, Rosa Coke Boyle (whom I think I never met, though I knew her sister), was additional fuel. But the moment of ignition was another chance meeting. A friend, Fernando Almeida, and I had gone to Howard Johnson's for a late Sunday lunch. A young couple entered and sat at the counter. He left no impression; she is still intact in every line a tall girl, maybe nineteen or twenty, with the strong bones and skull that would carry her beauty undimmed to the grave; long ash-blond hair, a straw church-hat, a white good-dress, and pale blue eyes that alternated looks of grave self-sufficiency and half-smiling bottomless imagined need: all aimed at the boy.
She would be Rosacoke, I knew at once Rosacoke a few years younger in life. The fact that I chose instinctively to show her first in adolescence was, I understood later, the central clue to her origin and meaning (for me at least, at that time in my life). She was the fictional equivalent of any one of a dozen girls who had treated me kindly eleven years before when we moved to my parents' home, a small county-seat in eastern North Carolina. My counterparts in the town itself quickly rejected me childish violence, real as any. But my rural schoolmates, bused in from distant tobacco farms, accepted me warmly; and for a long three years, age eleven to fourteen, I resorted gladly for validation to the daughters and sons of subsistence farmers. They were ebullient and trusting, if prematurely long-sighted; and they were calmly primed for early adulthood marriage, children and lives of hard work at the sufferance of nature, the cruelest employer.
My choice of them a female delegate from them, imagined though credible as a lens for examining a parent's death was an act of gratitude for old friendship. More important for the resulting fiction, it was an unconscious annexation of a sufficiently distant perspective yet one still capable of radiant energy the heat of admiration for a generous heart. Narrative has always refused to function for me unless I prime it with at least one partly admirable protagonist.
The first draft of a story grew quickly through the conflicting chores of winter and spring I was also writing a senior history thesis on John Milton's politics and when it was submitted in May to the composition class as "A Chain of Love," I sensed for the first time from my colleagues' responses that eerie pleasure of having been the medium through which an independent life has chosen to emerge. Though her story was not published for nearly three years, and though I continued to tinker at minor details, Rosacoke had stood up, live from her first paragraph in my mind at least and those of a few friends who dealt with her at once like a palpable creature, warm to the touch.
Four months after I'd released her in the final sentence of the story, I left home for three years of graduate study in England. That was another turn pressed on me by the accident of winning a particular scholarship. Since I'd long planned to live by teaching English literature, I'd have gone to graduate school in any case; but the luck of a long stretch of work abroad was a further, and crucially timed, gift of perspective. I was awarded not only money but four thousand miles of distance from recent experience, the leisurely pace of advanced study in England (virtually all one's time dangerously at one's own disposal), a larger circle of literarily-inclined contemporaries than any young American of the time could have found in the States, and (I soon knew) a low-grade but durable case of homesickness.
Despite the startling, if eccentric, warmth of my welcome in an Oxford that more nearly resembled Max Beerbohm's and Evelyn Waugh's than the crowded welfare-outpost of today, I found myself thinking and feeling steadily about and maybe longing for not my home in Raleigh with my mother and brother (however much I missed them) but a largely imaginary childhood home built from my present needs and raised on a foundation of the credible people and landscape of Warren County, North Carolina. The facts that the actual place and its inhabitants were greatly, if subtly, different from any I'd read of (their nearest relations appeared to exist in Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Chekhov) and that no one had yet memorialized them in fiction were further strong components of both the longing and the pressure to capture, fix, and transmit.
In my first two unbroken years abroad, I therefore stole perilous amounts of time from my studies and wrote stories called "The Warrior Princess Ozimba" and "The Anniversary," both redolent of the distant air of eastern Carolina. I also continued to tinker with "A Chain of Love." The sustained exploration and creation of that real and fantastic world of memory became so large a concern of my life that, by January 1957, I found myself seated in freezing digs in the home of a working-class couple, unknowingly on the edge of another accident of the sort that had so far proved propitious. One of my father's sisters had given me a subscription to our county newspaper, The Warren Record; and I was reading through a stack of issues delayed in mid-Atlantic by the Christmas rush the usual murmur of village polities, love-brawls and knifings, social notes of monumental placidity, and (a seasonal feature) children's letters to Santa Claus. When I'd scanned a few of the want-lists burp-guns, dolls, sweets my mind suddenly produced a picture. I developed it backward in a matter of seconds. A young woman dressed in a makeshift costume was seated with a live baby in her arms; she was Mary in a small-church Christmas pageant, the kind I'd acted in as a boy; she was Rosacoke Mustian; she was pregnant though unwed; the father was Wesley Beavers, a boy evoked but never shown in "A Chain of Love."
I went to my worktable and wrote down the impulse in skeletal notes. Propped against the wail before me was a color postcard I'd acquired after seeing the original in Holland the previous summer Vermeer's pregnant girl in blue at a window, absorbed in a one-page letter in her hands, a large map suspended on the plaster behind her. Surely it had silently inserted itself into whatever crowd of motives had brought me my own instant picture, so slowly evolved.
In the next few days other images flew to the central figure and my notes continued. But by then, caution had knocked. I was midway through the second year of a two-year scholarship. Fiction writing, travel, and my first tempestuous acquaintance with requited romantic love had left me little time to work on the substantial thesis required for my degree. My director, Helen Gardner, was rumbling ominously. A pair of certainties faced me in the new Rosacoke idea, I had the components of at least a novella; but unless I meant to return home in disgrace, I could not begin to write it now. The thesis took precedence. A smaller but real impediment was my sense that, given an inveterately chameleonic nature, I should wait till my immersion in British voices and rhythms had ended in a homecoming.
For twenty-one months then I turned to, first, a study of Milton and Greek tragedy (steady days in the Bodleian); and then an extension of my scholarship when it became apparent that I wasn't going to finish in two years and that, in any case, I wanted to stay a little longer in a place so conducive to fermentation; and finally to an instructor's job at my undergraduate alma mater and a return there to life in a trailer in the woods by a pond. Through the diversions and travel, I added almost daily to my notes for another Rosacoke story long and short meditations on plot, character, psychology, language, theme, narrative strategy, the lessons of my concurrent reading (Tolstoy and Hardy were especially instructive), my own doubts and insufficiencies, and the relations of it all to my own luxuriant toils of early love and work.
By October 1958 I'd settled into my trailer, my first autumn back at home was in gorgeous cry at the windows, my mother and brother were in stronger shape twenty-five miles away, my first scouting trips to Warren County were just behind me; and I sat at a new worktable to write what I was already calling A Long and Happy Life (the title, though a common phrase, had volunteered some months before when I first saw the film Bridge on the River Kwai and heard William Holden wish it for a young soldier doomed to swift destruction). Still propped before me was Vermeer's girl in blue; and beside her stood the forthright mysterious Botticelli portrait of a young man from the National Gallery, London he had served as the image of Wesley in my plans.
I was teaching a full schedule at Duke, two courses of freshman composition and one in major British writers. I managed to arrange my university duties on a three,day cycle, thereby freeing three days for writing (I took Sundays off). And slowly, with many balks and falls, I entered the long peculiar tunnel of novel-writing. Strangely, through the entire process, I continued to believe I was 'writing a longish short story or at most a novella; in fact, even when I'd finished, I submitted it to publishers as the final piece in a volume of short stories and was only with difficulty persuaded to publish it alone as the novel it plainly was. But my life quickly took on the tone and shape of a novelist's life long days of silent solitary work (relieved importantly, in my case, by easy access to a pond; Woods with deer, foxes, swarms of birds; and fields under broomstraw), work that soon exerts an imperious sway over one's other activities: job, friendships, loves, family duties. One lives so steadily, waking and sleeping, in an imagined world that the tangible world of houses, meetings, comrades begins both to fade and to swell in urgency. Throughout the writing, I found that an almost actual door stood ready to burst open between life and work. For long unnerving stretches, daily actions seemed manipulated to the point of puppetry by the needs and discoveries of fictional people. Other times, the intensest strands of private emotion would pour into the work with the vibrance and rhythmic inevitability of strong music. And always through the door came the pure inventions that gave the real joy.
It lasted a little more than two years. In December 1960 I completed the final revision of the scene that embodied my initial image Rosacoke, pregnant, as the Virgin in a pageant in Delight Church at Christmas. It had taken four years, mostly happy, of my life to bring me and her back to the starting point; and the happiness was largely a product of the time spent in her and her family's growing presence, the malleable shapes of their gestures and choices. (I notice only now that I transformed the three anonymous watchers of my father into the three young men of the stories Wesley, Milo, Rato.) As I released them into the typescript that was ultimately to become the book that delivered them to readers in thirteen languages, I remember a newly clear glimpse of adulthood. I, and my ROTC friends, had escaped armed combat. The Korean War had ended before we were tapped; Berlin, though ticking, had never exploded. We'd been left alive and unappalled to pursue past and future. There had been no public socially-certified rite of passage for our middle-class generation. When I'd finished, I suspected I'd been through a private rite and had someway described it death and survival, freedom and love by setting it loose to roam as it would, far from my own dreads and bafflements. If not an old soldier, then a parent of sorts and marked with the normal parental badges.
It was published fifteen months later. By then I was back at Oxford for a year. I'd abandoned the thought of a doctoral degree but had saved enough money in the three years of teaching to allow myself a stretch of time in the hope of new work. A few weeks after completing A Long and Happy Life, I'd conceived the idea of a story that would complete a volume of stories (now that the novel had been corralled out of my five earlier stories). It would be, I noted in March 1961,
...'about' my father and me: I could write about a man who six years after his marriage was childless and an alcoholic, whose wife became pregnant. Her labor was long and painful, and the man promised God that if the child were born alive and unharmed, he would not drink again. The child was born, unharmed; but the mother died he had forgot to ask for her life. My story would be about the relation of father and son.
That summer, in my old freshman rooms in Merton College, I tried to begin it total recalcitrance. It wouldn't come. With considerable anxiety (I'd touted nay trip to friends and employers as one of guaranteed productivity), I set the notes aside, not knowing that they'd season at their own rate and produce The Surface of Earth more than ten years later. I turned to translations of ölderlin and Rimbaud, to one more polishing of "A Chain of Love," and then (on a commission from Stephen Spender for the hundredth number of Encounter) to a story called "Uncle Grant" a Warren County story but this time a memoir. Those, and my friends, saw me through the frigid months till March when A Long and Happy Life appeared complete in a single issue of Harper's and simultaneously from Atheneum in America and Chatto and Windus in Britain. Its generally handsome reception consumed the remaining months abroad, and only when I returned to America in the summer was I able to begin a story called "The Names and Faces of Heroes" to flesh the older stories to a volume. The story dealt again fictionally, at a distance with my father's death. And for years to come, it closed that account.
Another was opening. I had come home again to the trailer to find my mother in Raleigh, fifty-seven years old, going rapidly blind for no reason doctors could at first discover. The next year saw her finally diagnosed with twin aneurysms deep in her skull drastic surgery followed by a partial slow recovery of vision, all under the sentence of imminent stroke. As I returned to teaching, the external world served up the Cuban missile crisis; then the murder in Dallas of John Kennedy. Running beneath, a constant thirst, was a private relation in which I released more havoc than I'd thought could flow from what had first seemed the wish to protect. Through the months I had gone on with notes for a father-son novel, hut by August 1963 even those had stopped.
So it was in a state resembling crucial need of peaceful employment that, in bed one night in January 1964, I thought of a story that promised to be comic. A few days later with no pause for plans or notes, I began to write it under the working title A Mad Dog and a Boa Constrictor. By the time it was finished in October 1965, my mother had died of the hemorrhage that had hung fire above her. The apparently comic story had become a muted near-tragic romance a long fiction but not a realistic novel and its final title was A Generous Man. It had explored in a thoroughly different, almost hallucinatory way the lives of Rosacoke's brother Milo and Rosacoke herself some years earlier than "A Chain of Love." That it had also explored my own simultaneous concerns, private and public, was inevitable (I've discussed its development elsewhere).
With its publication in March 1966, I had come to the end of eleven years' involvement in the imagined life of a single family. There were to be at least two more engagements with them a commissioned but still-unproduced screenplay of A Long and Happy Life and a stage play called Early Dark that examines the relations of Rosacoke and Wesley from a distinctly altered perspective and of course they'd never kept exclusive hold on my attention, even in their long run. But when I'd revealed Milo's final choice at the end of A Generous Man, I had (it now appears) no further need of reliance on his family's history. Strangers occasionally inquire the whereabouts and present fortune of a particular Mustian; and in 1970 I thought briefly of taking them up again, almost in middle age. But no story came; they were silent by then as disused oracles. Other actions and lives stood to fill other needs.
Yet from here, twenty-seven years after the invention of the family, maybe I can be allowed to look back with some degree of puzzled gratitude at the odd arrangements of fate, luck, and will that led a young writer long on ardor but short on distance to adopt a fictional family and their satellites (in most ways different from my own kin and friends) as the means of watching, subduing, and transmitting large tracts of his own experience. When they receded as available tools for further work, it was probably because of the peculiarly complete set of jobs they'd so patiently and variously done for me. That "A Chain of Love" and the two novels have been continuously in print since their first appearances and that they are now read by generations of students young enough to be the grandchildren of Wesley and Rosacoke suggests, in this present Dark Age of American reading, that their ability to do serious duty was not an offer to me alone. If they say nothing else, they attempt to say now, as they always did, the fixed unalterable injunction of narrative, to me and all readers The world exists. It is not yourself. Plunge in it for healing, blessed exhaustion, and the risk of warmth.
When I wrote those pages in November 1982, I couldn't foresee that, eighteen months later, my life would collide with the reality of an initially unremovable spinal malignancy. After an unsuccessful first surgery and weeks of radiation, I rapidly lost the power to stand and walk; and my work stalled in melancholy. Five months of idleness ensued, with the confirmation of paraplegia, before I was able to write again. Then in rapid order, I completed a delayed novel Kate Vaiden, numerous poems, and a trilogy of plays New Music. As life continued and I contemplated ideas for more long fiction, I lingered in the shallows of a number of projects before being struck by the old notion of returning to the Mustian family and observing their present lives. I knew at once that I wanted to set them in the present of the mid-1980s; and the one situation that presented itself as firmly as the Christmas scene had presented itself three decades earlier was the fact of Wesley's recent disappearance from his job and his marriage, a vanishing that took him miles from home and detained him at length.
In A Whole New Life I've written in detail about that time in my life, so I won't speculate here as to why, in a dark passage, I recalled these fictional companions of my youth. In any case, they responded to the summons and diverted me when diversion was needed. It's no mystery, though, why I knew at once that I'd find Wesley and Rosa (as she was now called) on the verge of a gulf in their middle age, a gravely dangerous domestic gulf which they'd come to feel they must bridge, at whatever cost, if life were to last. The final sentence of that third Mustian novel, which is called Good Hearts in forthright tribute, would seem to preclude my watching them further; but I've long since abandoned prophecy in regard to one family anyhow.
R.P., August 1998
Compilation copyright © 1999 by Renolds Price
Preface copyright © 1983 by Reynolds Price