Rules for Old Men Waiting. Random House, 2005; $21.95; 210 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: A brief, lyrical novel with a powerful emotional charge, Rules for Old Men Waiting is about three wars of the 20th Century and an ever-deepening marriage. In a house on the Cape "older than the Republic," Robert MacIver, a historian who long ago played rugby for Scotland, creates a list of rules by which to live out his last days. The most important rule, to "tell a story to its end," spurs the old Scot on to invent a strange and gripping tale of men in the trenches of the First World War.
Drawn from a depth of knowledge and imagination, MacIver conjures the implacable, clear-sighted artist Private Callum; the private's nemesis Sergeant Braddis, with his pincer-like nails; Lieutenant Simon Dodds, who takes on Braddis; and Private Charlie Alston, who is ensnared in this story of inhumanity and betrayal but brings it to a close.
This invented tale of the Great War prompts MacIver's own memories of his role in World War II and of Vietnam, where his son David served. Both the stories and the memories alike are lit by the vivid presence of Margaret, his wife. As Hearts and Minds director Peter Davis writes, "Pouncey has wrought an almost inconceivable amount of beauty from pain, loss, and war, and I think he has been able to do this because every page is imbued with the love story at the heart of his astonishing novel."
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
BookPage: The bittersweet juxtaposition of love and loss, of a life fiercely lived that is now slinking away, makes for a deeply moving, elegantly told story.
USA Today: The novel moves seamlessly among MacIver's remembrances. He realizes he's making "some kind of tally of his memories, as though completing the inventory might tell him what his life amounted to."
He relives his part of World War II and ponders a character in the story he's writing:
"This is a man who is never fully himself unless he's at war. (Yes, MacIver thought: We still meet his kind, and often we admire him. God help me, sometimes I admire him, not his general so often, but the expert fighting man himself.)
"Three thousand years and more after the Trojan War, it's still possible to show an Achilles at home guiding his reluctant men through his own private Hades."
The novel is as layered as the richest wedding cake but far more nourishing. Pouncey reminds me of Norman MacLean (A River Runs through It) and Wallace Stegner (Crossing to Safety), two other scholars who knew how to tell powerful stories that stick with you long after the last page.
Publishers Weekly: Starred Review. Begun in 1981, this slender, unpretentious, lyrical, and deeply moving novel...was more than two decades in the making. The year is 1987, and octogenarian Robert MacIver is alone, in failing health and debilitated with grief over his wife's recent death, hiding out in the dead of winter in a remote, unheated Cape Cod house "older than the Republic." ...He wants to live out his remaining days -- however few in number -- with dignity. Thus resolved, he formulates his Ten Commandments for Old Men Waiting, the seventh of which is "Work every morning." And so he decides to write a short story about an infantry company in "No Man's Land" in WWI, which will draw on the interviews he conducted with victims of poison gas that he used for his first book, the well-received oral history Voices Through the Smoke.
Sunday Times of London: The novel's title refers to a list drawn up by Robert MacIver. Terminally ill, mourning his recently deceased wife, he huddles inside their snowbound country retreat as supplies of food and fuel run low. The rules, gradually broken, include keeping himself clean, eating regularly, and doing some writing. He once wrote a book about the use and effects of gas in the First World War, and he now starts to work on a short story set on the Western Front. As this story unfolds, it is interspersed with a description of MacIver's physical disintegration (mirrored by that of the house) and recollections of his own past. We learn about his childhood in rural Scotland; the death of his pilot father in the First World War; his relations with his wife, a painter he met in New York; the naval action he saw in the Second World War; and the death of his son from wounds received in Vietnam.
When limbering up to begin his war story, MacIver writes: "I said to my soul, Be still, and watch the small trickling beginnings ease towards flood. Let the story declare itself, and the characters and events take me down among them and draw the words out of me. I have tried to possess my soul in patience, I have gathered all the hungers of my past in readiness, to spell out the missing syllables of my life."
Time: Dignity and honor during a century of war are the more obvious themes in this exquisitely detailed first novel.... The story that MacIver struggles to complete is a morally vexing tale about infantrymen in World War I; his telling is made more poignant by his service in World War II and the loss of his son in Vietnam. An evocative writer, Pouncey limns characters with such grace that to read this novel is to understand not just MacIver's loves, joys, and losses but our own as well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Peter Pouncey was born in 1937 in Tsingtao, China, of English parents. At the end of World War II, after several dislocations and separations, the family reassembled in England, and Pouncey was educated there in boarding schools and at Oxford. Pouncey came to the United States in 1964, teaching for three years at Fordham University in the Bronx. A classicist, former dean of Columbia College, and president emeritus of Amherst College, Pouncey lives in New York City and northern Connecticut with his wife. This is his first novel.