While reading Reynolds Price’s The Collected Stories (culled from his two prior collections- The Names and Faces of Heroes and Permanent Errors– as well as new tales) it occurred to me that he was chiefly a proponent of the idea that it is better to have an ambition to excel rather than an ambition to acquire. Almost all of Price’s protagonists seek to better themselves in the face of death, hardship, ignominy, or the like, yet few subscribe to the materialism that plagues his native land. Thus, he seems to come from an older time when this was the rule- not the exception, even though he was born in 1933, well into the Twentieth Century.
In a sense, the best of his short stories, which is the bulk of the thirty-nine herein collected, are both a paean to that ideal, as well as an exemplary illustration of the classic difference between which sort of writing dominates a writer’s mind- the intellectual and analytical, or the emotional and spiritual. Writers such as Richard Ford and William Trevor (whose Collected Stories I read alternating with Price’s) are clearly in the former camp. They look at things, characters, and situations intently, placing emphasis on such to the point that often incisive soliloquies break out. Writers like Monica Wood or Edward P. Jones are clearly emotional writers foremost. This does not mean their stories lack intellect, just as Trevor’s, nor Ford’s, lack emotion, simply that emotion is the primal reason for their storytelling. Reynolds Price sits almost squarely on the fence between those two camps. He is a wonderfully evocative writer about the body, memory, death, and emotion, yet he can discourse with the best of them- and not in the pseudo-babbling of Postmodernists like a David Foster Wallace or Rick Moody, who cannot even masturbate well, much less carry a narrative. That said, his work might have the most enduring qualities of all the aforementioned writers.
The odd thing is that I first knew him as a bad poet- one whose early work showed potential, but whose later verse became stale and academic- as it now occupies a place on my shelf for prosists-cum-poetasters like John Updike, Evan S. Connell, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey, and Loren Eiseley. What amazes me is how people who are utterly devoid of originality and music in poetry can be so masterful in prose. The difference may be sharpest with Price. And the most clear-cut schism may be with a series of small prose pieces that are really mood pieces, and, as such, are really more accurately proems- and the equal of the best of a Georg Trakl or Rainer Maria Rilke. In fact, I would have put these pieces in with his Collected Poems, not Collected Stories. These would include some of the sections of longer, multi-part tales as Good And Bad Dreams, Late Warnings, and Fool’s Education, as well as stand alone stories like A Told Secret, The Last News, Invitation, This Wait, Breath, Nine Hours Alone, Summer Games, and Good Night. These tales really show off the most gorgeous prose that Price is capable of, and why he is not only the most evocative published short story writer of the American South, but probably its best yet, as he does not fall into the stale ‘grotesque’ traps of William Faulkner nor Flannery O’Connor nor the hermetic delicacy of Eudora Welty.
This snippet is from “Nine Hours Alone,” which depicts the last hours of a female suicide. She is a teacher who has destroyed her marriage by sleeping with one of her teenaged students. She writes both her husband and her lover letters. Here is the one to the boy:
This will not reach you before the news. Like everything that happened around us, it was my idea, the only way I can now imagine to clear the room for you to walk forward into you man’s life and for my husband and daughter to last.
Teachers have hung their lives on students since time began, I know, and called it love; so at least my crime is old and familiar, if bitterly comic. Knowing clearly that today I harm a patient husband and a valiant child, still I only regret- in all the world- that you had less to give than I dreamed and, though you are three long years from manhood, will never have more.
That does not stop me wishing you a useful life, with courage to take what you turned back from me, the harmless gifts that your face earns.
Just look how wonderfully treacherous a character he has sketched- still scheming to manipulate the emotions of a child by absolving on one level, yet still blaming on another- the part where she says, ‘I only regret- in all the world- that you had less to give than I dreamed and, though you are three long years from manhood, will never have more.’ What a wicked character! What a wonderful way to poetically render her manipulative nature in a final act.
Reynolds is a master manipulator of his readers, often doing what the Postmodernists claim is their own purview, and doing it well before. He breaks the fourth wall, in several tales, to speak directly to the reader, while in other tales he obliquely references them by acknowledging the fictive artifice of his meaning. And in other tales ‘Reynolds Price’ makes an appearance- in name and body- most notably and effectively in Bess Waters, the tale of a centenarian born under slavery, who survives to the Civil Rights Era of the Twentieth Century. This story is a mélange of images that is very reminiscent of Jean Toomer’s Cane.
But, as said, Price excels when speaking of the body and memory. The best of the stories that highlights this skill is “The Enormous Door,” a story that veers back and forth through the decades, but focuses on a young boy’s family’s living in a small hotel during World War Two. The boy gets a room of his own, and soon he finds voyeurism to his liking- at first peeping through a hole in his room into the bathroom of his neighbor- a male teacher at his school. The boy may be having homo-erotic thoughts until he witnesses the teacher’s Lothario ways, and is thrilled by his knowledge of his teacher’s sexual conquest, as well the nubile bodies of the women he has sex with- including a female teacher at his school. Yet, the descriptions of the boy’s own ideas of sex, even apart from the voyeured sections, are great pieces of writing:
I never saw more of her body than that, for the next angel drew itself back against her. With occasional high recollections of song, the body resumed its waves that- for minutes longer- I went on understanding as joy. But soon in every plume and vane, it began to burn with light, not fire.
Again I suspected I ought to be scared but I wasn’t. I held my one fact- an angel was here, to give me this. If I burned away in sight of his dance, then at least I’d stayed like a man and borne it.
I well understand that veterans of the movies will yawn at this as a down-home version of Star Wars, with sex. But when it happened next-door to me, Star Wars was more than thirty years off; and sex in space had not been invented, though angels had. What I saw, I saw. And now it was ending. The waves became eventual shudders; and with one high soaring voice, there was now a second in skewed but winning harmony.
I knew some destination was near . . .
Look at what this snippet does. First it sets the reader on a shuttle back and forth in time, and then within we get the emotional and intellectual maturation of the writer seemingly flowing effortlessly. Look at how the first paragraph is suffused with clichés, as if the speaker is young and experiencing it. Then, the next paragraph distances the speaker from the event, emotionally, and there is less banality, until finally, the speaker is in the present- an old man, aware of his former silliness and callowness, and his prose soars as he breaks through that fourth wall to the reader.
Price is certainly best when writing of Dixie. His tales that veer from that place are not really bad, but not particularly good. The same is true of his tales that are less based in his own experience. And he is at his worst when these two weak spots are handled in tales far too long for their emotional heft. For example, the seventy-nine page novella Walking Lessons is about a college teacher who comes to terms with his wife’s suicide after helping a dying Navajo woman on her reservation. But, the descriptions are generic things any writer could have written, and not the charged and living South that Price knows. The whole arc of the tale is too familiar, and its end rather weak. The same is true for the forty-four page long An Early Christmas, which follows a divorced American painter (and recovering Roman Catholic) who sojourns to Bethlehem for Christmas. Of course, he finds a new outlook on life and art through meeting with Palestinians. Ho hum. The only one of these extra-Dixie excursions that works- and then only partly- is Fool’s Education, on the speaker’s trips to Dachau. The basic reason is that the outer world is not important, rather the connection the speaker feels to the first of the Nazi concentration camps because it was constructed only a month or so after his birth.
Yet, no such metaphors are needed in the full-on Dixie tales. In Full Day a man crashes his car, is taken in by a child and his mother, whom at first he has no feelings for, until he might. Eventually he may or may not have committed adultery with the mother, but the inner workings of his confused, and injured mind are what set the tale soaring:
So he looked to Gid’s mother, here at the sink four steps away. Her back was to him, and he knew on sight that now she’d literally forgot he was here. Plain as she was, she was that good to see, that empty of wishes for him to perform. All his life he’d tried to show women the boundless thanks he felt for their being. From his long-dead mother on the day he was born, to Lib his wife just yesterday morning, Buck tried to tell each woman who helped him the strongest fact he knew in life, You’re reason enough to stay on here. He honestly felt it and toward most women. To be sure, he knew there were bad women somewhere; he’d never met one. So he always meant the praise he gave them, mostly selfless praise with no hopes of any dramatic answer. And here past fifty, still he fell in love several times a month, with a face in a diner or crossing the street ahead of his bumper or dark on his back in a hot hotel room, staring at nothing better to see than a ceiling fan and old piss stains from the room above. He knew, and still could cherish, the fact of love-on-sight whenever his mind saw a winning girl; it would gently lie back on itself and tell him, Buck, rest here for good.
Not that he had. When he was twenty-seven he married Lib and had touched no other woman since, not with a purpose warmer than courtesy. That never stopped the joy or his ceaseless thanks. Hell, women had not only made him but named him—Will from his mother, Buckeye in childhood from his favorite sister. Now he fished out his pocket watch—quarter to five, Lib would be starting supper. He’d be half an hour late, no major crime. He folded the paper napkin with a care due Irish linen, and he said “I’m going to be late for supper.” But his legs didn’t move to stand and leave.
The tale ends ambiguously as to whether or not Buck committed adultery. But, in a move that shows Price’s technical mastery, the tale ends with an italicized ending, far down the last page, that explains what really was going on inside Buck’s brain, and it wallops the reader who has grown fond of the character:
In four months Buck will die from a growth that reached decisive weight in his body this full afternoon and threw him down.
His elder son has made this unreal gift for his father on the eighty-ninth passing of Buck’s birthday, though he died these thirty-five years ago.
One of the best things about this Collected Stories is that it is a true book, not merely a compendium. The stories are put in a good order, with short tales allowing breathing space for the longer, richer tales. Too often, in de facto Best Of collections, the tales are poorly selected, and then put in seemingly random order. This book has purpose to it, and because of its form one cannot tell where the older and newer stories begin nor end. Yet, there is no schism, which is a tribute to Price’s decades-long excellence. In the book’s Introduction Price even states: ‘. . .all of them stand in a new order—one which attempts an alternation of voices, echoes, lengths and concerns that would prove unlikely if I held to the order of the prior volumes or set the stories by date of completion.’ It’s a smart choice, one too few writers and editors seem to understand, which also separates Price from lesser writers, and hurls him on toward something like greatness.