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BOOK REVIEW : Price's Stories About the South Earn Him a Home in Literature : THE COLLECTED STORIES, by Reynolds Price ; Atheneum; $25, 625 pages

July 12, 1993|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Reynolds Price began writing in the 1950s. By then, William Faulkner had built Southern literature as we know it--that gloomy, ramshackle post-bellum mansion with its peeling Greek portico and slave cabins out back, its bloodstains and echoes and ghosts.

Younger writers could repaper a room to their taste or deface the halls with graffiti, but they pretty much had to live in it.

The question was how. The answer for Price--as it was for two otherwise very different writers, Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy--was to sit by a window with a clear view of the fields and mills but to look primarily inward, at the mansions and swamps of the spirit.

Price is best known for novels, notably his debut, "A Long and Happy Life" (1962) and "Kate Vaiden" (1986). "The Collected Stories" contains almost all the shorter fiction he has written. It includes his previous story collections, "The Names and Faces of Heroes" (1963) and "Permanent Errors" (1970), as well as recent work that follows a 20-year gap during which he wrote no short stories.

Early and late, the stories have a narrow autobiographical range--Price and members of his family appear by name in many of them--but they open onto a wide variety of religious experience.

Religious doesn't mean dogmatic or even orthodox. Price's vision is personal, matter-of-fact. He and his relatives seem to have had enough mystical encounters to consider them a regular part of life, no more or less real than life's evils.

Unlike O'Connor, who pitilessly excoriates unredeemed human nature, Price gives us many portraits of good and loving people. Unlike Percy, whose tales of a godless New South have a theological underpinning, Price seems to be Christian by default. The established faith, simply because it is established in the times and places of which he writes--usually his native North Carolina, often during the Depression or World War II--serves as a container for experiences that otherwise would defy classification.

In "Full Day," a traveling salesman named Buck (later identified as Price's father) suffers the first attack of a disease that will soon kill him. A boy who sees him nod off in his car thinks he's dead.

The boy's mother invites him in for a meal. Buck blacks out again and wakes up in her bed. The possibility that something sexual has happened--to this man who has always felt "boundless thanks" toward all women but has been faithful to his wife--is like an unexpected blessing; he feels "the calm soul in him."

In "Watching Her Die," the narrator is a boy who can't resist impulses of "common meanness." One day he twists a schoolmate's crippled arm. He confesses this to his father's elderly, seemingly half-witted aunt, who replies: "Now I'm asked to die for you, son."

She sits down on a log in the woods, and he watches "while every cell of her skin went dead." An inner voice tells him to leave. Hours later he brings his father to the spot. Amazingly, the old woman comes out of her trance or coma, but the boy has learned his lesson: He has a "duty to find . . . the needful heart for whom one day I lay my own life down and depart."

It's worth noting the areas of life that Price's vision doesn't touch.

He isn't much concerned with politics, economics, the structure of society. His idea of evil is an old-fashioned one: Bad men drink, philander, utter cruel words and beat their wives and children.

Price is well aware of the legacy of slavery--in "Bess Waters" he tries to enter the mind of a 100-year-old black woman who has led "one long life too hard to tell"--but the following passage of analysis from "Walking Lessons," a novella set on a Navajo reservation, is unusual for him:

"(The Indians ask for help) with the veiled passivity of subject peoples. The Negroes of my childhood would come like that, to the back door at night, with some tale of woe--someone's shot, cut, dying; then would stop and stand silent. You would think they were waiting, confident in the cunning of their desperation; but at bottom, they were not. They were calmly, utterly hopeless. . . . Then if you acted--said 'Climb in the car' or 'I'll get the doctor'--your act was accepted with, again, calm grace, not as due response but as miracle."

Even here he works his way back to miracles, his real subject. And for all the persuasiveness of the autobiographical stories, Price handles his intimations of the divine most deftly when he has to.

The comic (if death-haunted) "A Chain of Love" reintroduces Rosacoke Mustian, the heroine of "A Long and Happy Life," and makes us wish Price wrote more comedy. "Endless Mountains," a fable about a wounded Civil War soldier who drags himself off the battlefield and up into the wilderness, where a couple of teen-age refugees heal him by love alone, is a near-perfect fusion of mood and style.

Price has grown over the decades. Some of his recent stories are about gay men. He evokes the evil of Dachau as well as of child abuse. His protagonists travel to Europe and the Holy Land.

His prose sometimes abandons the running rhythms of traditional Southern tale-telling in favor of a voice that's awkward, clotted, self-conscious--and modern. Not quite a major writer, he has earned and kept an honorable place in the high minors. No builder of mansions, he has added enough bay windows and porches to his room to make it, definitely, a home of his own.

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