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."
I enjoyed, I said, that Mabry was a conservator. "I like in novels for the narrators to have occupations about which I don't know much."
"I agree. I must admit I've committed a writer novel but I won't do that again. But it's my conviction, between you and me, that there is a Van Gogh underneath that boy's picture. And it may not be a fully executed thing. I don't think it is. I think it's a sketch, an oil sketch. But sooner or later, I think they're going to find a way to reclaim the Van Gogh that's under there.
"And then there's that whole question about who's it going to belong to, because the lawyer gets killed in the World Trade Center and nobody knows whether he's got any family or not." Mr. Price paused. "I don't know the answer to all the questions about my book."
"When you lay awake at night do you dawdle in your novels, and think about them and dream them?"
"I don't so much do it at night as I do keep a very active notebook going while I'm working on the novel. I'll type down a lot of what I call feasibility studies. What happens if so-and-so gets the job, then the following things will happen. I'll try to work out what seems like the most feasible or certainly the more fictionally promising strategy to follow. Usually by the time I get in bed at night I am ready to fall asleep."
"Do you ever feel when you're working on a novel that you're living two lives -- your own and that of your characters?"
"I do. I don't. But I can get haunted by the action. And in the one case, which was a novel that I published in 1986 called Kate Vaiden, I certainly did. That was the period in my life when I was dealing with spinal cancer and becoming paraplegic. I must say two or three years earlier, before the trouble hit me, I had chosen to write this novel, from the female first person, from a person who's very different from me as a human being. I think that while I was so ill, that I could go into my study and literally become somebody else, really was hugely helpful for me, psychically and physically and spiritually and in all sorts of other ways.
"I didn't feel as though I was Kate, but I certainly felt that I could go in my office and lay aside my own plans for 'x' number of hours a day, and be deeply involved in her life. That was a huge help. I think that was the main time in my life when that hauntedness was most helpful and significant for me."
Mr. Price paused, then added, "I love to work. Very early in my life, writing was hard for me. I was teaching myself how to do it. I took one writing course in my life when I was a senior in college and I never went near another one. It was useful but it certainly wasn't transforming. It didn't teach me how to write."
"Do you talk with people about your work while you're working on it?"
"I'm the writer who does talk. I try not to talk to the point of boring anybody. But of course as you know, it's probably more usual for writers not to want to talk about it at all."
I asked about some names in the book. The name "Tasker," said Mr. Price, is a name in his hometown. "Tasker Polk was a big, famous lawyer in the town and there are some of his descendants who keep the Tasker name. I suspect it's one of the Southern cases of someone's last name becoming someone else's first name. Like Reynolds being my name.
"I love Tasker. If I had to pick an absolute favorite person as a novelist, probably it would be he. I don't know where he came from exactly. I decided that, when I realized that maybe Mabry had nowhere to go, that he couldn't get back to Manhattan because his loft was going to be littered up. I thought, 'Well, okay, he's from eastern North Carolina where I'm from, and he's going to go back home for a little while, he'll be interesting there.'
"I started making notes. What is he going to be? How about a retired Episcopal priest? I know that if I go back right now and looked at my notes, I could find, you know, 15 pages of preparatory material that led up to my discovery that he was going to be that, but that's the way it happened."
"Is Tasker low church or high?"
"He was low church. The southern Episcopal churches are pretty low. Certainly the ones that I went to as a boy. I was christened in the Episcopal Church. My father's father was an Episcopalian. I spent a lot of my childhood thinking I was going to become Episcopalian, and then I finally became a Methodist with my mother. Now I'm heathen." Mr. Price laughed. "No, I'm not a heathen at all, but I don't go to church.
"Heathen is a good word. We have this standard southern thing, which was my father was Baptist. He had become Baptist with his mother. My mother was Methodist. And although they really adored each other and I think had a very good marriage, neither one would cave in and join the other's church.
"So my brother and I went through childhood thinking which parent's feelings are we going to hurt? I tried to split it down the middle by becoming Episcopalian. But, as an adolescent, I decided, 'I'm going with my mother,' which is a fairly standard thing for a boy to do."
"What made Mabry such a womanizer?"
"I don't know. There are an awful lot of them in the world, as you've probably learned, by listening to Oprah, if nothing else. Well, I didn't want him to be a saint. I definitely didn't want him to be someone who had no bad qualities whatever. Womanizing seemed inevitable from the side of that."
I said that I thought that one of the problems, in part, that the novel was working out was the Southern race problem.
Mr. Price agreed. "It turns out to be definitely. Mabry returns to North Carolina and there's the racial thing, facing him again. And too, his father -- Tasker -- has left the house to Audrey and Mabry makes this extraordinary request that somehow he'll give the house to Audrey but reserve a room for him. Just in case he's going to need somebody eventually. He's definitely going to need somebody.
"I tried to make Audrey, I tried to make that character at least, not be Tasker's caretaker. I tried to make her Hispanic because Hispanic people now live all around my home. And my whole part of northeastern North Carolina, there's a great many Hispanic people -- they've come there to work on the farms. I tried to make her an Hispanic woman. I wrote a few pages that way and it didn't work. I didn't know exactly how I thought Hispanic people behaved, so I thought, 'There's no way around this, it's going to be an African-American woman.' "
I had wondered, I said, if Audrey's son was also Tasker's son. He wasn't, said Mr. Price. He added, "I think it is hard for anyone who hasn't lived in that world to understand us. When I was born in Warren County, North Carolina, which in my mind is where this novel occurs, I was born into a county that had an almost 70 percent black population. I was born in 1933 and I knew in my childhood, very closely indeed because they worked in our family home, that I needed two people who were infants when the Civil War ended. Nowadays if I tell my students that they'll look at me as though, you know, I were born during the Black Plague in Europe in the 13th Century or something. But it wasn't nearly as long ago as we'd like to believe. As an institution. And reconstruction was really a hundred years ago."
We talked about the southern meals in Mr. Price's novel. "You are so bad," I said, "You put ham in everything. And you serve ham biscuits at almost every meal."
"You couldn't even begin to sit down to a proper meal without ham on the table."
"And you have the ham sliced paper-thin."
"Just right, thin enough to read through."
"Southern writers have terrific material with which to work."
"I know. We're still mighty lucky in relation to that whole world we came out of."
I asked then what I ask many interview subjects, "Is there something you wish I'd asked you that I didn't ask?"
There was. "Do I like it?" said Mr. Price, and proceeded to answer his own question. "I like it a lot. I don't reject any of my novels. I don't reject any of them. I own up to all my children, but this is in my own list of favorites.
"You never tell who your favorite child is, but in my list of children, I would put this pretty high. I don't want to say it's an old man's novel, despite the fact that I'm 72, but I think it's different from a number of my other novels. I wanted it to be like an arrow going to a target. You know, very direct, and while the story and the plot are by no means uncomplicated, I do feel that emotionally I wanted it to be like an arrow going to a target and I worked hard to try to do that. To me it feels like that."