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.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: "How did you sit on this story for so long?"
"There was a mess of fragments. I've been an academic, doing ancient history. Then I was a college president at Amherst. For too long entirely -- ten years. I would write bits of fiction, but really not with a novel in mind. I just dropped my pages into this small wooden chest. I got well over 1200, but it was never in the first 20 years, I would say, pointed towards a particular novel. And then I got a psychic boost that somehow I ought to try to do something with coherence in it.
"But in a couple of the pieces you see my worst person."
"Sergeant Braddis. He is terrible. He is wonderful. He is dreadful."
"He sprung as his own man. And then, I went back and I said, 'Take the old Scot and make him the central figure of the whole,' and then it came very fast. I wrote it in a concentrated burst from the day after Christmas in 2003, English Boxing Day, and I wrote the whole thing in seven weeks. I finished on February 17."
"So it came as though a giant bung was taken off. It came with a rush. I'm halfway through another one, totally unrelated. But it's this release into trying to think connectedly in fiction, this is the release I'm feeling. That I can put together events and characters and dialogues which have some connection to each other."
Knowing the story of Mr. Pouncey's writing of Rules for Old Men Waiting, I said, I wondered if during all those years he didn't write the book if he used it as an imaginative play toy, something to dream over as one went to sleep or dawdle in during meetings.
"Yes, very much. I think the hassle, the small-mindedness, the arbitrating of the silly, petty feuds in this or that sector of a college contributed. The fiction seemed somehow more innocent -- it was on its own ground and you could shape it."
The name "MacIver," how did he come by it?
"I never met him. But most of my career has been at Columbia in New York. And in the Columbia political science department -- so not my department at all -- there was a wonderful, old, crusty Scot, who I think must have died around 1960, '65, called Robert MacIver. And his accent never gave way.
"He was a Scot to the end. He was always slightly curmudgeonly but always right. I looked on the name, although I never met the man, with affection. And my affection for this particular character that I never met was known, and somebody once gave me... there was a Greek lyric poet, Pindar -- very difficult to read because it's in a dialect. The Pindar was the Greek text, and there were MacIver's corrections in it. So that I felt another bond with the man, even though he was a political scientist. He knew his Latin and Greek."
In a self-interview, Mr. Pouncey wrote that the writer whose influence on him had been largest was Thucydides. Other works have exerted their magic on him, he noted, "Homer and Herodotus perhaps most of all."
"Your book," I said, "with MacIver presiding over it, has the feel of The Tempest."
"Oh, yes, good for you. You're the first person who's said that. Part of the ache in the book is the ache of fading powers. So it is Prospero-like in that sense, very much so."
"There is," I suggested, "also the presence of the inspirational Ariel who urges MacIver on to finish his beautiful fiction."
"I think you've got pretty much what I was intending. It's the pull of the love story, the lighter touch in the episodes at the end. All that pulled it up. The man keeps himself going, the way we would all want to go. He is intensely involved until the very end. He rescues himself.
"And the other thing that he is very blessed with is that he's had someone who understands him perfectly. So those two are wonderful blessings on an old man at the end, it seems to me."
One rule MacIver makes for himself is that he will cook himself a meal every day.
"You can't say he triumphed on the observation of that particular rule, that he was going to cook himself something every night. I like it when he more or less dispenses with menus and concocts this mass cookie gruel. It's also a point in the novel when his body is sinking back to nature; to the same thing that he's feeding it. The fact is that it's dishonest if you have the man clearly sinking to his end, to leave him somehow untouched by mortality until it happens. I think he has to be in the toils of dying. Which makes his telling of the story so all the more impressive, that he holds himself to it."
MacIver, of course, knows that he is dying. He gazes at his body in a mirror. He watches the tumor on his side grow as, at the same time, he notes his loss of flesh. "His acceptance," I said, "of his death's inevitability kept the progress of the book from being a progress of decline."
"Good. You are my ideal reader. William Pritchard, the critic, an old friend, said about the book that although it's not depressing, it is kind of heartbreaking."
How, technically, did Mr. Pouncey put together the story of MacIver and the story MacIver is writing?
"I imagined him making up four characters, and at first, having them labeled A, B, C, D. Then he produced, out of that A, B, C, D, some actual names -- Alston, Braddis, Collum, Dodds. He saw the A, B, C, D as four pieces of himself brought into conflict. He has lots of violence as Braddis does, but he is passionate about art as Collum is, and the person who brings it all to its gentle rest is Alston, who loves nature the way MacIver does -- that is, as an observer, not as an abuser of it.
"My notion was that it's interesting to follow someone in the pull between his memory and his imagination. What he is making up for himself pulls him back to things that actually happened to him."
"His study of these four aspects of himself also has a way of being a deathbed examination."
"I think so. I think I more or less say that, but it's the way he comes to know himself indirectly. Instead of being self-pitying or worrying about his growing illness, he goes out into his imagination and he sees these facets of personality and recognizes them as parts of himself."
"But it seems to me that as he works through these people, he's also asking forgiveness and being redeemed by his willingness to look at parts of himself."
"Exactly that," Mr. Pouncey said.
"You can see the mind of a classicist behind this."
Mr. Pouncey agreed. "I think that's so. The oddball thing, it only occurred to me after I'd finished, that there is the imagined life that MacIver makes up, and there is the remembered life of his boyhood and his meeting Margaret and so on. But then it's important to realize there is the continuing diminishing life that goes on day by day. You see him trying to sustain himself while he writes and while he remembers and while he imagines."
"It's wonderful how you get on paper MacIver's memories of his late wife's fabulous dinners -- how the fresh broccoli looked, how the house smelled when he walked through the front door."
"I have stepped into some derelict old people's homes where it has been a while since they've been taken care of or that someone was caring for them. So many people slide away into a kind of depressive getting-through-the-day and don't even notice their surroundings."
The book opens with MacIver's memories of the couple's younger days. They would go to the pond near their old Connecticut home and swim and bathe.
"I live in an old house myself. That more or less started when we bought this old house -- it's about as old as MacIver -- up in northern Connecticut. Someone warned me, 'It's a lovely old house, but just remember from this day on, there will be no day at all on which there is not something that needs doing.' That has turned out to be very, very true."
Mr. Pouncey never quite lets the reader know of what it is that the MacIvers are dying. Why did he decide not to offer a diagnosis?
"I think they both have two different kinds of cancer. But I certainly didn't want to get into the diagnostic thing because I wanted to be free to imagine sequences of developments in the illness for myself rather than being medically correct.
"Also, I wanted to see him on his way. I was with my mother when she died, and she was a great stoic; she was a wonderful, graceful old lady, but she got tinier and tinier. This fact that you hardly make a bump in the bed because you are so emaciated was very much my mother's state. I came in on the end of that. I was with her four days until the end came. I more or less started Margaret at the same point."
My father, I said, "used to say to me that it was important to furnish your mind well, that there was nothing as wonderful, particularly, as one got older, as having a well-furnished mind. I thought about that about you and your retirement. You are never going to be bored."
"That's true. Actually I'm sure many of us reach the same point. That one shouldn't wait until the very end to do what you always wanted to do. But necessities impose themselves on you, and then there's a moment when you allow yourself to dictate the way it will be. That's the final liberation, to do what you want to do."