Books Essay - Summer 2011

Ardent Spirit, Generous Friend

Remembering the novelist Reynolds Price

By David Guy | June 3, 2011

When I visited my old friend and mentor Reynolds Price in recent years, I was always shocked at how huge his torso had gotten; he’d been quite slender when we first met. The spinal cancer he contracted in 1984 paralyzed his legs; they were now shriveled and useless. His treatment had often included steroids, which gave him a voracious appetite. He would roll his wheelchair into the living room of his sun-filled house, so full of art objects and bric-a-brac that there was virtually no wall or table space; his body was like a massive boulder, his head hunched forward in what seemed an uncomfortable way. From time to time he’d push himself up on the chair handles, stretching his back, wincing. The havoc this long illness had wreaked on his body was pain­ful to see.

But he was always in radiantly good spirits, a fact that novelist Jim Harrison noticed once when he was in town. In a book of Harrison’s food essays called The Raw and the Cooked, he wrote, “One of my dinner partners at the Magnolia, Reynolds Price, though in a wheelchair from spinal cancer, demonstrated more grace and joy than any American writer I had ever met.”

Reynolds had talked so often in the last few years about his 2009 memoir, Ardent Spirits, that I felt it must occupy a special place in his work for him. The book is about a vital turning point in his life, when as a young man from rural North Carolina he had begun the journey that would make him into an internationally known man of letters. When I wrote a long email to him after the book came out, telling him it was my favorite of all his books, I knew something was wrong when I didn’t hear back. He sometimes replied to emails and sometimes didn’t, but he always responded graciously to notes about his work.

I inquired among friends and heard he was going through a difficult period, experiencing a lot of pain. He’d put in 25 years in that wheelchair, had gone through kinds of pain most of us can’t even imagine, so when I heard in January that the pain had finally ended for him, after a massive heart attack, I was sad that I’d never see him again, but glad that his long physical struggle was over.

There’s been a great deal of talk about what a multifaceted man he was: novelist, poet, memoirist, critic, Bible translator, professor. Nobody seems to mention what a marvelous companion he was. Among raconteurs around a dinner table, or over a drink, he was unparalleled.

I got to know him much better after 1980, when my first novel was published. Until then—since 1966, when I took his freshman creative-writing class at Duke University—I had been just one more student who was forever asking him to read things, recommend editors or agents, or just give advice. He was unfailingly helpful and patient through all that time. But once I’d had a novel accepted, he began treating me as a peer, not that I ever was one or deserved that. He spoke to me as a fellow writer.

The summer before the book came out, he said he had something he wanted to tell me. We met for lunch in the Great Hall at Duke, where hordes of students eat during the school year but not in the summer. We did have to move places once, after we’d wound up near an obnoxious British professor (“Between the pipe smoke and the B.O., I was about to keel over,” Reynolds said), but we found a quieter spot, and he settled in his chair and fixed me with his eyes before he told me what he wanted me to hear.

“Publishing a first novel is a down,” he said.

I don’t know whether I was more surprised by the sentiment or by the ’60s locution. We’d known each other back in the hippie days.

“Really?” I said. The past 10 years of hard work had been for nothing?

“You’ve spent your whole life thinking that if you can finally publish a book, everything will change,” he said. “You’ll suddenly be good looking and everybody will love you, the world will throw itself at your feet. Then you publish the damn thing and nothing happens. You’re the same social misfit and compulsive masturbator you always were.”

If it was a down for him, it was a down for everyone. Reynolds’s first novel, A Long and Happy Life, received resounding critical acclaim when it appeared in 1962, had people calling him the legitimate heir to Faulkner, was published in its entirety in a single issue of Harper’s, and appeared briefly on The New York Times best-seller list. A contemporary of his once told me that every American writer Price’s age gnashed his teeth in furious envy at the reception the book received. That was what they had wanted for themselves. And the man who wrote it was so poised and good-looking.

When I first met him, he had also published a book of stories and his second novel, A Generous Man (1966), which took the characters from the earlier novel and put them into a much different kind of narrative, a strange fable of a young man’s coming of age. Years later I traveled around North Carolina to various public libraries, leading a discussion of Mustian, a paperback volume that included both novels, and though my audience was invariably charmed by the first book, they were puzzled and frustrated by the second.

“I don’t blame them,” he told me when I reported back. “The diction and rhetoric in A Generous Man are rather difficult. Needlessly so, I’d say now.”

Still, it was well received by critics, and Price in those days seemed to be cobbling together the ideal literary career, the lyrical first novel about the beautiful young Southern girl taken advantage of by a good-looking cad, the book of early stories that had served as his apprenticeship, the more complicated and ambitious second novel. We all wondered what was next.

The stories he read in class in those days seemed much different from the earlier work, darker, leaner, full of pain. His mother had recently died—both his parents were now dead—and he seemed less like the promising young lyrical writer than a mature man who was beginning to take stock. Though he was compared to Southerners like Faulkner and his own mentor, Eudora Welty, he spoke most often of writers like Flaubert, Turgenev, and, in particular, Tolstoy. He also talked about ancient narratives—like those from the Bible—that had survived the test of time. What was it about these stories that kept readers coming back again and again, in every generation?

That turning inward produced his most successful short fiction, the stories in Permanent Errors (1970), especially “Waiting at Dachau” and “Walking Lessons,” both of which he published while I was at Duke. To be a young man who longed to write, who had a professor—and friend—who was publishing in Esquire and Playboy, was a heady feeling in the late ’60s. It set a high standard.

But it seemed obvious that he had his eyes on a big book, not stories and novellas. He spoke admiringly of Tolstoy’s shorter work, but reserved his highest praise for Anna Karenina. There was a raft of Southern writers who produced superb short fiction—Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Peter Taylor—but the major Duke writer in those days was William Styron, who produced massive, complicated novels like Lie Down in Darkness. His Confessions of Nat Turner had won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize. I was no longer Reynolds’s classroom student, but still very much in touch with him when he published The Surface of Earth in 1975. “It’s the best book I can write,” he said to me over the phone. “Maybe somebody else can write a better one.”

Actually, he had written better books himself. The intensity of rhetoric and darkness of vision that were so successful in “Waiting at Dachau” and even the novella-length “Walking Lessons” proved to be too much for a 500-page family saga (and first novel of a trilogy) like The Surface of Earth. “[It] comes to us like a great lumbering archaic beast, taking its place among our literary fauna with the stiff queer presence of the representative of a species thought to be extinct,” Richard Gilman wrote of it in The New York Times.

Years later, the term nervous breakdown surfaced in a conversation I was having with Reynolds, and I said I wasn’t sure what that was.

“I think it’s when you just don’t have energy for anything,” he said. “You sit on your front stoop and watch the traffic go by. The way I felt after The Surface of Earth.”

And yet, as one looks back on his life as a whole, the results of that setback weren’t all bad. There was something almost too perfect, and too careful, about the career he’d been fashioning; it was good that he got a jolt and things got messy. He seemed to relax more about the whole enterprise; he wrote a play (Early Dark, 1977) and some Bible translations (A Palpable God, 1978), and he got back to poetry after a long hiatus. He became more a part of the Duke community, instead of standing off near the sidelines as its (soon-to-be) great writer. And as a human being—though it may just have seemed this way because I was older—he seemed more relaxed and accessible.

The eventual result was what I think of as his best novel, The Source of Light (1981). He finally learned in that book what the biblical narratives were teaching, that short swift episodes and simple direct language might be more effective than the difficult rhetoric and long swatches of prose in The Surface of Earth. I still think that it stands alone as his best novel, but it was published as the second volume of a trilogy whose first volume had not been popular. The book was well reviewed, but didn’t get a great deal of notice.

I can remember getting only two phone calls from Reynolds in my life. One was to congratulate me after he received his copy of my first novel, Football Dreams. The other was not long after that, still in the early 1980s; he identified himself and said, “I wonder if you’d do me a favor.”

I answered instinctively that I would. This was the first time he’d asked me for anything, after the many times I’d approached him through the years.

“We’re having Anne Tyler and Eudora Welty come to do readings in a couple of months, and I was hoping you’d co-moderate a panel with me, with the two of them.” There was a pause at my end, as I took in this statement. “I want someone else on the stage in case I keel over, or go out of my mind or something,” he said.

There was going to be a panel with Anne Tyler and Eudora Welty, and he wanted me—the 34-year-old author of one novel—to co-moderate?

“Sure,” I said, completely stunned. “I’d be glad to.”

“You can come over for a drink as we get close to the event,” he said. “We’ll plan what we’re going to do.”

His friendship with Eudora Welty went way back. She had visited Duke when he had been an undergrad there, and had read and praised one of his early stories; they remained friends and mutual supporters for the rest of her life. Anne Tyler, when she was a 16-year-old freshman at Duke, had been a student in the first class Reynolds ever taught. He had been trying to get her to come to the campus for years. The only way he’d persuaded her was by getting Welty first. They too were friends.

Apparently Reynolds didn’t remember from when I was in his class that I had serious problems with stage fright. I wanted to do him this favor but didn’t know if I could. Because I had a fair amount of time to prepare, I started reading as much of each writer’s work as I could. In the meantime, publicity began to appear, and it said nothing about a co-moderator. There would be a panel moderated by Price and featuring three writers, Tyler, Welty, and you know who.

Ever since Reynolds had made his request, I’d been asking myself why, out of all the people he could have chosen, he had picked me. My friends asked this same question in crueler and more pointed ways. I eventually decided that a fellow academic as a panelist might have asked obscure and pedantic questions, and the rest of the faculty would have felt left out. Another novelist might have tried to get in the limelight. Reynolds knew I wouldn’t do that. Whatever the posters said, I’d take a back seat to the others. He just wanted a moderately sane human being on the stage with him. I hoped he’d gotten one.

I did ask him about the publicity when we got together for that drink, but he brushed it aside. “We’ll stay in the background and let everyone celebrate these two great ladies,” he said. There would have been a time when he wouldn’t have been able to do that, would have had to shine. But he kept himself out of the spotlight during those three days. He was a model host.

Typical of Reynolds—the man was nothing if not confident—he didn’t want to plan things. That would deaden the event. He’d ask the first question and I should ask the second, then we’d wing it.

Things began with a dinner at the university president’s house. There, in that group of dignitaries, I felt out of place. I met Anne Tyler, who seemed to me the ultimate Duke coed (a group I’d found intimidating in the past): beautiful, brilliant, and entirely gracious. She had actually gone to the trouble of reading Football Dreams and complimented me before I could say anything to her. “I must say, I was expecting someone a little beefier,” she said. She was holding a plate of beef as she said that, and for a minute I thought she was complaining about the food. Maybe I was a tad nervous. It wasn’t my suavest evening.

There was a press conference the next morning, and I went along for the ride. Anne, though she remained gracious, had a testy air the whole day. She really didn’t like the celebrity that surrounds writers; she wanted to do the work and be left alone. She and Eudora went to the ladies’ room before the press conference and didn’t come back for a remarkably long time. She walked up to Reynolds afterward and said, wryly, “Did you think we’d taken a powder?” Eudora, though a modest woman, loved the chance to talk.

The press conference had been on East Campus, and the luncheon that followed was on West, so we had to drive from place to place. There was an awkward moment after the press conference when we got back to the car—driven by Reynolds’s friend Will Singer—and realized we had one more rider than there were seats. But it was a hatchback with a compartment behind the back seat. “Go ahead, David,” Reynolds said, “you’re an old football player, get back there.” Eudora looked as horrified as if he’d asked her to climb in, but what the hell, I didn’t care. So on my most notable day as a writer, probably ever, I rode to the luncheon lying in a cramped fetal position in the back of a hatchback, listening to the conversation waft over me.

The panel was later that afternoon. Eudora and Anne went back to their hotel rooms to rest, and I went to Reynolds’s house—10 minutes from campus—with him and Will Singer. At least I got to sit down on that trip. We sat around the house, and I brought up the subject of writers reading, saying—something I’d maintain to this day—that Reynolds was the best I’d ever heard. He said he’d taken voice lessons at one point, learned to bring up his voice from deep in his gut, rather than up in his throat, where most people talk from. That seemed effortless for him, very much a part of who he was. He had one of the most relaxed stage presences I’d ever seen.

I, on the other hand, was sweating bullets. The big moment was coming, and I was more and more frightened. When we got into the car to drive over, I mentioned that to him.

“You’ll be fine,” he said. “Don’t worry.”

“It’s like having sex for the first time,” I said. “You think you can do it. But you’ve never done it.”

“Just don’t get mixed up when you’re on the stage,” Will said.

“Right,” Price said. “Don’t whip it out.”

My memory is that we picked up the two women, and there was room for all of us; there must have been another rider in the morning. As Will drove us to the East Duke building, people seemed to pour in. We made our way to the auditorium through this streaming crowd.

It was a place where I’d often attended chamber-music concerts, an auditorium with two side balconies that held, in all, perhaps 400 people. It was midafternoon on a weekday, but the place was packed. The four of us sat in a small anteroom beside the auditorium, and the noise from inside was horrifying. It sounded like a mob.

Eudora shook her head and said something I’ve always thought was very endearing, more or less to herself. “All these people. What do they expect of me?”

I looked at Anne, who had blanched. She looked the way I felt.

“Why did I ever want to be a writer?” I said.

“So you wouldn’t have to do things like this,” she said.

Earlier, at the luncheon, she had said, “I’ve never gone to a reading. I’ve never wanted to. I don’t understand why people go to readings.”

She was like me, an essentially bookish person whose idea of bliss was to sit at home and read a book. Every night.

I had, however, been to a number of readings, some quite memorable. W. H. Auden. Isaac Bashevis Singer. I answered her question honestly, from my standpoint, but I thought afterward that it was exactly the wrong thing to say.

“I think they just want to see the person,” I said. “Lay their eyes on the human being who wrote these books they like so much.”

That’s why I would have gone to see either one of them.

But I suspect that was just what Anne didn’t want. She didn’t want people gawking at her.

Someone came to tell us that the room was packed and that we might as well get started. Reynolds nodded at me. We had determined that I would lead the way and run interference for him and the rather frail Eudora. As we walked in, the crowd spontaneously broke into loud applause, and for some reason I found that terribly moving. I almost started crying, though of course they weren’t applauding for me. When we got to the stage and Reynolds introduced me, he said, “And at the end of the table is David Guy, whose beautiful novel, Football Dreams, was published in 1980.” I almost started to cry again. I’d had no idea I would react that way.

The panel didn’t go at all as planned. Rey­nolds had told me his question beforehand, and I had what I thought of as a suitable follow-up. The three of us answered his question, but before I could ask mine, he broke in with another question of his own. By the time I got around to mine—had there been a mentor in the past who had led them into writing—Anne gave an almost monosyllabic reply (her mentor had been the same as Reynolds’s, and he had already answered), so the question fell completely flat.

Anne, as I’ve said, was extraordinarily intelligent and articulate, but in some fundamental way she resented—or at least resisted—the whole situation. She was right on the edge of bristly, as if she wanted to say, to every question, What right do you have to ask me that? Even Reynolds, an expert questioner, couldn’t get her to hold forth.

But Eudora Welty loved to talk, not because she was full of herself, but because she found everything so interesting. She talked to that crowd the way she would have talked to friends in her living room. She wasn’t overly homespun, the way some Southern writers put on more of a drawl and act more hickish as soon as they get in front of an audience, but there was something down-to-earth about her just the same. Reynolds once told me there is a whole army of cultivated older Southern women who have read abso­lutely everything, and Eudora was their brigadier general. She was obviously the most substantial artist on that stage, but was also—somewhat to my surprise—the most intelligent person. She dominated the afternoon, and by about halfway through I was completely relaxed. The panel was a huge success.

I remember only one of her answers. At a certain point Reynolds had opened the panel to questions from the audience, and of course there were many more than we had time for. A guy bolted to his feet in the right balcony (“I’ve always thought that in a crowd like that there might be a sniper,” Reynolds told me later, “and when he jumped up like that I thought it was him”) and shouted out, “Why do you publish?” Reynolds rolled his eyes at the question, but Eudora didn’t miss a beat.

“I publish for the same reason I want somebody to be on the other end of the phone when I talk into it,” she said.

The crowd roared, but the answer also made a lot of sense. All her answers were like that.

Anne’s reading that evening, in a large auditorium in the student union, was excellent. She was a good reader with a strong stage presence. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t like to do it. I’d gotten there early to get a good seat, about halfway back, and when Reynolds came walking down, he looked startled. “We’ve got a seat for you down front if you want it,” he said. I was so unused to such occasions that I didn’t realize there were perks.

Eudora on the second evening read my favorite of her stories, “The Wide Net”; I couldn’t believe she’d chosen that one. She’d had to abridge it somewhat, but did so masterfully. At the reception that night she was surrounded by adoring fans; she sat there drinking bourbon with a little water, looking happy to stay far into the night. If anyone had told me I would be part of such an event when I sat in Price’s class in 1966, I—and certainly my classmates—would have told them they were dreaming. It remains one of the highlights of my life as a writer.

It was just a couple of years after that panel, not long after Reynolds turned 50, that a friend noticed that Reynolds’s foot was slapping the ground in an odd way when he walked. Reynolds thought he might have some minor problem like arthritis, but went to the doctor for tests and eventually discovered he needed immediate surgery for a malignant tumor intertwined with his spine. If it had been even 10 years before, there would have been no treatment; the necessary laser technology had only recently been developed. I didn’t get the news until after the first surgery had been performed; I went to the hospital and found a stunned-looking man who had been through a horrific experience.

That was a period when our friendship deepened. I was writing every morning, but didn’t have another job. The hospital was five minutes from my house, his house another five minutes from there, and I began to visit him three or four days a week, both because I enjoyed it and because I wanted to help. This was a man, after all, who had been a huge help to me in my life and in my career. We know now that he would live another 24 years, the most productive period of his life. At the time, for some months—as the physicians tried to get the tumor under control, and his physical condition deteriorated—I thought he was dying.

After my third or fourth visit, when I showed up and once again asked how he was feeling, he gave me a little talk. “Listen. If there’s something about my condition I think you should know, I’ll tell you. Otherwise, please don’t ask about it. I know I must seem like the most self-involved person on earth, but I really don’t like to talk about myself too much. Let’s find something to talk about other than my medical condition.”

Great, I thought. There’s this massive elephant sitting in the middle of the room and we’re not going to talk about it. What the hell are we going to talk about?

Sex, as it turned out. For the next three months, six months, two years, I don’t even remember how long, we talked about almost nothing else. Officially, in the literary world at large, Reynolds was a closeted gay man—he’d almost had to be, at the time when he began writing—but everyone around him knew he was gay, and he certainly made no secret of it to his friends. Gay sex was something everyone was talking about in the early 1980s, but Reynolds was interested in gay sex, straight sex, and everything in between, what people were doing, what they were talking about, what they were reading and watching in the movies. The subject was of endless fascination to him and was a strong undercurrent in all his work. And he had stories about everybody. He was a world-class gossip. If he had ever written his gossipy memoirs, they would have made the best-selling book of all time.

His first novel after the onset of his illness, Kate Vaiden, became his most famous; it won the National Book Critics Circle award for the best novel of 1986. The story of a sexually adventurous but otherwise rather solitary woman, it marked his return to a female protagonist, as in A Long and Happy Life. I’d always thought his readership was largely female, a guess that seemed to be confirmed by the audiences I ran into on my tour of the libraries in North Carolina. I don’t know if Kate Vaiden was his best-selling book, but it was certainly the most acclaimed.

I was at the National Book Critics Circle ceremony in New York when Reynolds’s editor read his acceptance speech, and though I was enormously proud of my old mentor and friend that night, wildly happy for him, I never disguised the fact that I thought The Source of Light was a better novel. He would smile when I said that, never express an opinion.

“Somebody told me once that some readers like my books about men, some my books about women,” he said. “You’re obviously in the first camp. I don’t really care. I’m happy when anyone reads me.”

He would never have that kind of success again—few writers have it ever—but his productivity skyrocketed after his illness. The man who, when I had been his student, tried to produce a single finished page per day was now working long hours and writing thousands of words per day, and the books poured out of him, novels, poems, plays, memoirs, books of theological speculation. He had a considerable career as a commentator for NPR, and continued to teach one semester a year for the rest of his life. Despite the pain he’d been experiencing in his final months, he was still scheduled to teach in the spring of 2011 when that heart attack killed him in January.

When any writer dies, there is always the question whether his work will survive him, and of course for Reynolds Price it’s much too early to tell (which would never have stopped Reynolds; he loved to speculate on literary reputations). He probably wouldn’t like my saying it, but I have a feeling it might be his nonfiction that will wear better over time. He wrote that a little differently, more the way he spoke, and he was, as I’ve said, one of the great talkers of all time. His memoir of his illness, A Whole New Life, had a huge audience of people who knew nothing of his other books but were inspired by the enormous courage with which he faced his cancer.

But the story of his whole life was remarkable. When I met him in 1966, he was by far the most intelligent, literate, sophisticated, and worldly person I’d ever met, but this was a man who’d been born in Macon, North Carolina, the son of a homemaker and a not especially successful itinerant salesman. His father had moved all over the state looking for work, often leaving Reynolds as a new kid at yet another North Carolina school. The way he emerged from that background to go to Duke University, then on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, is a remarkable story, perhaps the most interesting one he ever told.

Reynolds had an incredible memory, right to the end of his life. He still, in 2009, remembered every person from my creative writing class in 1966. He also had a precise visual sense, and visual memory; Clear Pictures, the first volume of his memoirs, is one of the most aptly named books ever written.

As is Ardent Spirits, the last book he published in his lifetime (though he is said to have been working on a new volume when he died). I was most anxious to read Ardent Spirits when he first told me about it, and couldn’t believe the time he took over it; it meant a great deal to him, in that and all his books, to get the facts right. It is my favorite among all his books; I think it would be a good place for a new reader to begin, because Oxford was where Reynolds had his own beginning. He encountered his intellectual and artistic equals and even superiors, men like Stephen Spender, Lord David Cecil, Auden, J. R. R. Tolkien. He had finally discovered a group of peers and supporters who would sustain him throughout his whole career. He found himself as a scholar (he wrote his thesis on Milton, whom he taught for years at Duke), as a fiction writer (writing the stories later published in The Names and Faces of Heroes), and as a sexual being. He seemed tremendously fulfilled and happy. A career that would have its ups and downs but would end in triumph—and in a burst of creativity that carried him through many years of a difficult illness—was just beginning.

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