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His Voice is Slow, He Listens Closely, His Tales Enthrall : MINOR HERESIES MAJOR DEPARTURES, A China Mission Boyhood by John Espey . University of California Press; $25, 349 pages

July 07, 1994|SCHUYLER INGLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I have suffered mightily for being a man of slowly spoken words. Few indeed are the patient listeners. So it was with great satisfaction some years back that I met John Espey, author of the recently published "Minor Heresies, Major Departures: A China Mission Boyhood."

I had been attending a writing class, the instructor's wife had grown woefully ill, and Espey stepped in to take over for the rest of the quarter. His voice caught my immediate attention--not just for its rumbling bass tone but for its slow, mellifluous cadence as well. Here was a man who spoke more slowly than I, and he had my complete attention. It was about that time that I learned how much a help it is to the listener when the slow speaker actually has something to say.

And Espey did. He would listen patiently to readings of his students' dreadful prose, comment here or there, then somehow gently drift into a tale of his own. And the tale would go on and on and on, weaving in and out of a childhood spent in China, the ways of a Presbyterian missionary father and mother, life under C.S. Lewis at Oxford, a certain taste for gin while grading papers.

And always, just about the end of class, the story would congeal, come rapidly to a point, turn on a surprising series of events and awarenesses that would literally pull out the listener's breath in a way that fired up the heart like a forge.

In other words, Espey never really told his writing students what to do in the way of storytelling. He simply demonstrated. He also consumed the majority of class time, a neat trick for the teacher.

I searched used bookstores and came up with a first edition of his collection of childhood reminiscences, "Minor Heresies." Alfred A. Knopf had published it in 1944. I remember marveling at one story after another. There I was, after all, something of a student of writing, beginning to realize that I was at the knee of a master.

Espey's voice carried with the resonant surety of a temple bell through each and every story, a voice that balanced delicately between the self-deprecating humor of the adult and the wide-eyed wonder of the child. Few indeed are the mature writers who can give their child memoirs a child's voice.

Espey is one.

Two volumes followed the publishing of "Minor Heresies": "Tales Out of School" and "The Other City." It is from these three volumes that Espey has drawn what he calls "all the chapters I wish to preserve" for inclusion in "Minor Heresies, Major Departures."

He was born in Shanghai in 1913 and was more or less raised in that city until he left to attend college. The lucky reader is taken back not just to an earlier time, but to a place and time that no longer exist, all of it seen through the eyes of a growing boy and a reflective, bemused adult.

Espey's world was divided between the mission, school and the city. He never once loses track of the fact that he didn't simply come to Shanghai like so many other Westerners, but was born there. It's as though he is part Chinese without the ability to actually be so, and this quirk of fate colors his vision.

But there is something else in these stories, also from another time and place, and that is the sense that they may well have all been spoken out loud, told as stories by a man with a magnificent grip on his language, his sense of humor and timing, and his sense of audience. What with the rise of television and all, we have so few opportunities today to simply sit around on an evening and tell each other our stories.

Espey comes from a time of slow speaking and close listening. It is a joy that the experience is here for the rest of us, preserved on the printed page.

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