Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reynolds Price: reading for a cold and dark season

The approaching holiday weekend is, from a calendar view, the darkest and coldest of the year: the ultimate reason for an overstuffed and over-sleepy few days of excess and blissful forgetfulness. If any reading can be done at all, it better be on the light side of sugarplums and moral lessons from fictional characters named Ebenezer Scrooge, especially when staying awake past ten p.m. on any given holiday evening can be a mighty test of will. After a round of parties and gift-wrapping, the few days before Christmas seem to stretch out in early and never-ending darkness. It can be difficult to find reading that manages both to be both entertaining and illuminating in a dark season.

There is the work of Reynolds Price, however. Years ago I discovered Clear Pictures, his memoir of a North Carolina boyhood in the 1940s. Wit, sharp detail, youth observed as translucent as if it happened yesterday, and memories plucked up from the stream as by a hawk. Here he is describing his father's "welcome scourge" of practical jokes:

"From cradle to grave, Will's practical jokes were the welcome scourge of his friends, kin and in-laws. In that less analytical time, nobody asked if a concealed hostility was at work in his impenetrable disguises, ruses, forged letters and convincing crank-phonecalls. If there was veiled anger in his motive, then it seems realistic to see also what an imaginative and entertaining way he found to vent it -- our own home-theater, complete with regular catharsis. No one was ever so much as bruised; and no one ever expressed resentment, neither on the spot nor in after years. Those were tougher spirits in general then, not trained to expect kid gloves, day or night.

... Everyone was skittishly resigned to a turn as the object of one of Will's long-planned hoaxes. What removed all whiff of cruelty was his clear intention to amuse and everyone's delighted response, even the victims', and the fact that the victims promptly began to plot a turnabout, if he or she had the wits to catch Will unawares. In that crew of expert comedians, some did."

"Those were tougher spirits then": whatever nostalgia remains for mid-twentieth-century America from a childhood in the South, Price is bluntly honest about its bleaker aspects: there was war, poverty, deprivation. There's also surprise in the black humor of an early holiday memory: I can also see our black terrier, dead under the tree on a Christmas morning (the only explanation I ever heard was that Will dropped a laxative pill the night before and was unable to find it; but the dog succeeded, ate it, lay down to rest in the tree's cotton snow and died in the midst of my Santa Claus)."

Price continues to teach at Duke University after being diagnosed with spinal cancer in 1984, and continues to write; he's another in the lengthening line of "regional writers" who have made prolific writing careers, although he's careful about placing too much emphasis on being a Southern writer: as he says, "I think we Southerners have talked a fair amount of malarkey about the mystique of being Southern." Still, he's been in some good company; Eudora Welty helped get his first books published. Like many writers, he's made a public career without much public ado -- an observation he would find dryly humorous if it weren't for the literary accolades his work has received. Clear Pictures was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1989; in 1986 his novel Kate Vaiden won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and there have been many others.

Price has a wry sense of writing's place in American culture, or the very lack of one. In Feasting the Heart, his 2000 book of essays for National Public Radio, he writes about the growing number of British adaptations of English novels on American television and the movies, while noting our country's own "baffling neglect ... of the waiting riches of American literature." From his essay "Native Orphans":

"Look down the American fiction and drama shelves of your nearest library; locate the absolute first-class titles from James Fennimore Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Mark Twain, on through Willa Cather, Eugene O'Neill, Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald to Tennessee Williams, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and their live-and-kicking peers. Search your memory for a single example of a first-class film adapted from any classic American novel or play -- a first-class film, now ...

My own recent search turns up only three such unassailable achievements -- Sidney Lumet's version of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962), John Ford's version of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and Michael Mann's recent version of Cooper's Last of the Mohicans (1992). Period.

Oh, I may have forgot a contender or two ... I'm well aware of the many dozens of films made from lesser novels -- films like Gone With the Wind and The Big Sleep -- but I don't expect to hear a chorus of reminders of the brilliance I've neglected to mention."

He goes on to a list of intriguing contemporary possibilities, from Robert Stone's "parable of American havoc overseas," A Flag for Sunrise, to William Kennedy's Albany novels, "onward through a multitude of stories for the next millennium." These films will not be made, at least not by Americans. What causes this neglect? For Price, it's a familiar and disheartening litany that includes minuscule arts budgets slashed ever further in every legislative session, school systems without the arts, a failure of nerve in the face of popular culture. He -- and we -- wait.

Price continues to write both fiction and non-fiction on matters of faith and family. His most recent books include Letters to a Godchild: Concerning Faith (2007) and The Good Priest's Son (2006), a novel of 9/11.

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