The Good Priest's Son by Reynolds Price. Scribner, 2005; 288 pages; $26.
FROM THE DUST JACKET
On September 11, 2001, Mabry Kincaid -- a fiftyish art conservator -- is flying home after a much-needed rest in Rome and Paris. Halfway across the Atlantic, his plane is diverted from New York to Nova Scotia. Two days later, when the United States has recovered sufficiently from the attack on the World Trade Center, Mabry discovers that his downtown New York loft is uninhabitable. He flies south to North Carolina instead to visit his aged father. A widowed Episcopal priest, Tasker Kincaid has been injured in a recent fall and is cared for by live-in Audrey Thornton, an African-American divinity student at Duke University, and her grown son, Marcus, an ambitious painter. During a week in North Carolina -- with help from his cantankerous father, from Audrey and Marcus and from Gwyn Williams, an old flame -- Mabry is compelled to explore his tormented relationship with his father and with a world that still harbors much that he's loved but has long since abandoned.
On his return to New York -- and in a swift and unexpected return to the South -- Mabry must deal with the near-ruin of his loft, with haunting memories of his infidelities to his recently deceased wife, with the end of his childhood family, the uncertainty of his professional career, the ambivalence of his adult daughter, and with a daunting likelihood that is terrifyingly at work inside his body.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY
From Publishers Weekly: The novel blossoms into a heartfelt study of thorny familial love. Price also poignantly renders the exigencies of Mabry's middle age: Mabry takes up with an old flame while coming to terms with his philandering past, the death of his wife from cancer, and the debilitating onset of multiple sclerosis. His discovery of a Van Gogh oil sketch also livens the story, but it is Price's assured prose and fully imagined characters and their family ties that make this emotionally resonant novel compelling.
From Booklist: The inevitable flow of fiction about 9/11 has begun, and the issue for novelists will be how to make the tragedy seem organic to the story rather than added on to it.... This novel is, then, about reconnecting with the past when the future is obviously so uncertain.
From Newhouse News Service: Price has now written 36 books since the publication of the wonderful Long and Happy Life in 1962, and it has become clear that his literary goal has been the same as the great English poet John Milton's: to justify the ways of God to man. The titles of some of his books indicate this interest: A Palpable God, Source of Light, Tongues of Angels, Three Gospels, and now The Good Priest's Son, to name a few.... Like so many of Price's novels, this is a tale of failure followed by redemption. It is an impressive and moving story.
From The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina): Shock's grip -- whether it numbs or overwhelms -- is not a friend to fiction.... But surely the most quietly magisterial meditation on the subject is Reynolds Price's new novel The Good Priest's Son.
The book, the 36th by the Duke University professor, does not concern itself directly with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Instead, it creates a world in which the attacks are a part -- only a part -- of the reader's awareness. Lives go on even in the face of fear and tragedy, much though we might wish otherwise. Inside the intricately constructed terrain of Price's book, we watch a character wrenchingly start to comprehend his dependence on others, a dependency made clear by the national crisis.
Although the doctor cannot be sure yet, he is guessing that Kincaid has multiple sclerosis that, from the speed of the symptoms' onset, is progressing full throttle. No one in America writes better about the betrayals of the body than Price -- who has been confined to a wheelchair since surviving cancer -- and Kincaid notes his accreting symptoms with focused detachment that is profoundly unsettling.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in 1933 in Macon, North Carolina, Mr. Price has been on the English faculty at Duke University in Durham since 1968. He is the author of 14 novels, beginning with Long and Happy Life and his most recent, The Good Priest's Son.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR
From my desk in California, I asked Reynolds Price, "A painting that may or may not be by Van Gogh continues to show up in your new novel. What about that painting?"
From his home in North Carolina, Mr. Price answered. "I'm trying to reconstruct it right this instant in my mind what the chronology of getting that painting into the book was. Certainly the first thing I thought about was Mabry's being an art conservator. Because that has always greatly interested me, I wanted so much to be a painter when I was a boy and a young man and I realized I wasn't really going to be good enough to be. And then in recent years a couple of much younger friends of mine have become art conservators.
"So I thought I'd make Mabry an art conservator. I knew that I wanted the book to have some relation to 9/11. So I thought, okay, 'Mabry is flying back to America from Europe and as happened to a friend of mine, he heard about the 9/11 attacks.'
"Then, boom, the next big step was thinking that Mabry's bringing back a picture for a client of his and that the picture is going to have some interest other than simply being this thing that the guy heard about when he was staying at a hotel in Paris. I thought, 'It's going to be a picture by a young boy who as it turns out was an American.'
"Oh, I know how the Van Gogh thing happened. I was sitting here while I was working at the very early stages of the notes of the novel. I was leafing through a beautiful art book of paintings that Van Gogh did in the last months of his life. And I thought Van Gogh is lying there and writing to his brother, 'There's a whole family of Americans here, all painting like mad.' I went from there. I said, 'Oh my God, yes, there's going to be this young boy, they're going to be from Charleston (because I had recently made a trip to Charleston), they're a wealthy family from Charleston, they've gone to France, they wind up in this town, which was in fact also an arts colony, and the boy goes out a time or two with Vincent and he happens to be with him on the afternoon that Vincent commits suicide. And that there's a possibility that this landscape that he painted that day was painted over the top of some sketch that Vincent gave him. You know, just said, 'Here, son, here's a used canvas of mine that you can work on.' And that's the way it all came in."