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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
The second time I met Reynolds Price was uneventful. So was the first, at which I didn't so much meet him as stand next to him. Still, each small moment changed the way I saw myself. That second time was the first time I ever ate at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. It was also the first time I got taken to dinner by my current literary agent, whose client list includes Nobel Laureates and National Book Award winners and who, I feared, had mistaken me for someone else.
We walked into the Algonquin dining room, and there was Price, in his big, shiny wheelchair, right at the Round Table!
I nearly fainted.
My agent hugged him. He was up from North Carolina for an awards dinner.
She introduced me to him as "my new client."
Price smiled his wide, genteel southern grin. "So," he said. "A junior partner in the firm."
I have no idea what I said. Something inane, surely.
He reached up, touched me on the shoulder. "Let her pay," he stage-whispered. "She's the agent."
She laughed. So did Price.
She and I took a table nearby. Thank God. I was working on my fourth book then, no novice. And there was nothing intimidating about that warm, friendly man. But I didn't feel like I belonged at that table, with that hero of mine.
Yet, there I was, in the same restaurant. In the same profession. A junior partner in the firm. Eating a meal Reynolds Price's agent paid for.
This is from Roxanna Slade, Price's novel, told in the voice of a 90-something woman, in the middle of herattemptto tell the story of her life:
The problem in trying to tell the story of a human life is easy to state. People's lives...are uneventful for way over three-fourths of their length. If you don't believe (and I know I don't) that every instant in a life is urgent to that person's fate, then you could write a satisfactory life of the busiest man or woman who ever lived in less than two pages, often on a postcard. Most things that happen to a person leave no more trace than last month's raindrop....
All the same, I'm almost convinced that if you can tell the absolute truth about the five or ten moments that mattered in any one life, then you'll have shown how every life is as useful to the world and to the eyes of God as any president's or pope's.
I'm not sure anyone ever said a wiser thing about trying to tell stories that involve recognizable human lives.
Price, at 65, is a throwback to that grand, dying tradition, the man of letters: poet, short story writer, playwright, novelist, reviewer, critic, essayist, autobiographer, translator (of the Gospels), and college professor. At Duke, Price teaches not only writing workshops (where his students have included Fred Chappell, Josephine Humphreys, and Anne Tyler) but also, once a year, the Milton seminar.
Roxanna Slade is Price's 30th book, but his main character's shrewd sense of narrative has been Price's credo from the get-go, when at the age of 29 he published his first novel, A Long and Happy Life (which, speaking of the Algonquin Round Table, was called a book that "strikes too deep to fuss around with analysis" by no less than Dorothy Parker).
In trying to solve the problem of telling the stories of recognizable human lives, Price, particularly in his short fiction (see The Collected Stories), has done what any master writing teacher would tell his students to do: Skip the "way over three-fourths" of your characters' lives that are uneventful and write about the eventful, interesting parts. But what's special about Price is his ability to spin long, deceptively simple stories by telling "the absolute truth about the five or ten moments that mattered in any one life."
At times, that life was Price's own, which he's written about in two fine autobiographies, Clear Pictures and A Whole New Life. (The latter deals directly with the astrocytoma in his spinal cord that rendered him a paraplegic in 1984; since then, Price has continued to teach and has produced more than a book a year!)
More often, those lives have been ones Price invented. The love story of Rosa and Wesley Beavers, for example, begun in A Long and Happy Life and continued in Good Hearts. Or the magnificent Kate Vaiden, in which the eponymous heroine, who describes herself as "a real middle-sized white woman that has kept on going with strong eyes and teeth for fifty-seven years," tells the story of those years, in the form of a faux autobiography. Anyone who marveled in Cold Mountain or She's Come Undone at how a male author can so convincingly write from a female perspective should enjoy seeing what a true master can do. This is the territory to which Price returns in Roxanna Slade: a woman, this one born with the century, who surveys both her own engagingly "uneventful" life and the century in which it was lived, deftly recalling societal changes along the way. Childbirth, for instance, "killed young mothers like flies, a fact that's all but forgotten today in America." There are lines like that every couple of pages; my wife politely asked me to stop reading so many aloud, because she wanted to read the book, too. I would have quoted more lines here, but she's in the next room reading and wanted the book back.
The first time I met Reynolds Price? The American Booksellers Association convention in Washington, D.C. His publisher was giving away copies of Clear Pictures, and Price would be signing them.
As I got close, I saw a long line. I joined it. It humbled me to see how far I had to go. But it also made me feel great about being in a profession where several hundred people gathered for someone as worthy as Price.
I drew closer. I saw a sign. I was in line for Vanna White's autobiography, Vanna Speaks. The line for Price was off to the left. Maybe 20 people long.
Price sat in that wheelchair and signed books and was charming, chatting up his modest crowd. Even among book people, Vanna White was a bigger draw than Reynolds Price. This is the kind of indignity any great American writer must suffer with grace.
If Price was suffering, he didn't show it. When I got to the front of the line, I inanely blurted that I, too, was a writer. He said some nice things to me that I was too starstruck to hear. He signed my book "With encouragement, Reynolds Price."
I've always felt like a freak, that I was so naive to have once thought people cared about real books.
Then again — nine years later, the game show second banana's book is out of print. Most of Price's rich body of work is readily available.
The absolute truth? Roxanna Slade would be a good place to start.
Mark Winegardner, a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University, is the author of four books, including, most recently, the novel The Veracruz Blues.