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Rape and Transfiguration : A LONG AND HAPPY LIFE by Reynolds Price (Atheneum: $14.95; 195 pp.) : GOOD HEARTS by Reynolds Price (Atheneum: $18.95; 276 pp.)

May 22, 1988|Sven Birkerts | Birkerts is the author of "An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on Twentieth Century Literature" (William Morrow). and

Reynolds Price's first novel, "A Long and Happy Life," originally published in 1962, recounted--or, better, evoked--the back-country courtship of the young Rosacoke Mustian and Wesley Beavers. Beginning with "Wesley's impulsive and short-lived abandonment of Rosa at her friend's funeral, encompassing their awkward sexual initiation, the novel culminated with Wesley's decision to do the right thing by the girl he'd made pregnant. A quarter century later, it remains a nearly perfect novella. Every page declares the open senses and curious heart of an enormously gifted young writer.

That writer has gone on to become one of our living masters, with an oeuvre that includes novels, essays, plays, poetry and even theological speculations. Though he has been battling a cancer that has confined him to a wheelchair these last three years, Price has, if anything, increased his productivity. And the success of his award-winning "Kate Vaiden" (1986) has begun to garner him the attention he has long deserved.

"Good Hearts," Price's new novel, belongs to the "Where are they now?" genre recently reactivated by John Updike, Walker Percy and Philip Roth. The author picks up his two main characters after a lapse of nearly 30 years. He finds them--for all that has happened socially and historically in this country--scarcely changed. They now live quietly in Raleigh, N.C., where Wesley works as a mechanic and Rosa as a secretary at the local college. Their son, Horatio, has married and moved away. The title of the first book appears to have been prophetic.

But Price is hardly finished. He has it in mind to put these two people, these "good hearts," through a crisis that will all but destroy what they have built. Only then will he bring redemption and restoration.

"Good Hearts" begins with Wesley's unexpected "awakening" to himself. "He'd just been working that last afternoon and reached for a metric tool from his bench when his hard right hand stopped in midair. Those five clear fingers seemed no more his than the car he was tuning. . . . But in another minute a voice in his head said, 'Death is what you just reached for.' "

Utterly unnerved, Wesley bolts from his job, his home, Rosa. . . . He drives to Nashville and checks into a motel. And within a few days, he's living in a trailer with a pretty young woman named Wilson, wondering if he'll ever return home.

Rosa, much the same sensitive and sure-footed soul we remember from "A Long and Happy Life," accepts his departure with a wounded matter-of-factness. At least at first. But very soon, she experiences her own near-annihilation: An unseen intruder rapes her in her own bed. The reverberation of this assault through the layers of her psyche makes up much of the middle section of the novel.

The night of Rosa's rape, Wesley is cuddling up with Wilson for the first time. At one point, she asks him if he still loves his wife. "I must not," he answers. Whereupon the omniscient author tells us: "Wesley's sudden doubt set free that instant in Raleigh the one living man who might to harm (sic) Rosacoke's own body. . . ."

This mysterious, non-causal interconnection between lives gives Price his plot armature and allows him to explore the divergent imperatives of physical, emotional and spiritual need. If the first novel concentrated on body and heart, the sequel homes in mainly on the soul. By using Wave, the troubled rapist, as the ultimate agent of reconciliation, Price injects his metaphysics with a weird adrenalin. He wants to show, I think, how grace may discharge itself through the most complex of human webs. But his expedient strains our credulity more than once.

The departure from the strictly naturalistic mode of the first book causes slight problems. As readers, we are positioned with one foot in the old order, the other in a more thematically-calculated present. The careful marshaling of detail and sensation has given way to a more meditative--and abstracted--narrative mode. To be sure, Rosa can still knock us over with the perfect oddness of her voice. As when she says of her brother, Rato: " . . . I've got no real complaints against him so far. He's as quiet as a bale of cotton. He lives as neat as a snake, no mess of any kind behind him." But when she turns the meaning of her troubles over and over in her mind, we sometimes lose contact with the immediate breathing woman we've come to know. There are a few stretches where characters seem to become pretexts for the play of ideas.

But Price is finally too canny a writer to subvert his best talents. The lives he has created are vital enough to withstand their own soul-searching. By the end of "Good Hearts," we have witnessed the re-cementing of a love. Rosa and Wesley have gained in wisdom, but their vulnerability has been left intact. This is an honorable, winning book--the slightly weaker panel of a powerful diptych.

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