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Reynolds Price relives the past in high spirits
Spring is impossibly verdant in Raleigh, so lush it's steamy. The path to the door of Reynolds Price's house in the woods is scattered with beechnuts. Tree frogs babble, the screen door slams, somewhere in the pond outside the kitchen an old snapping turtle raises its head. It's hard not to think of the song "Copperline" which Price wrote with his friend and fellow North Carolinian, James Taylor.
Price, 76, is North Carolina born and bred. He's lived in this house for 51 years, the same amount of time he's taught at his alma mater, Duke. And yet, on this Southern spring afternoon, Price is arguing, with more than a hint of a North Carolina accent, against the idea of regionalism or any kind of literary niche. "I'm an American writer, for God's sake," he says. To him, it seems, categorizing authors according to identity labels (Southern, Western, gay, female) amounts to a kind of literary racism.
Price, who is gay, also prefers to be called "queer"; wheelchair-bound since the removal of a tumor in his spine in 1985, he refers to himself as "cripple" or "gimp" rather than more polite designations. He's written 38 books and endured so much physical pain that referring to it, no matter how politely, causes him to wince. "I wasn't in pain until you mentioned it," he is fond of saying. He ought to be able to define himself in whatever way he chooses.
Price gets around with the help of students who live with him each year. Ian Holljes graduated from Duke in 2007 and is Price's 25th helper. What's most interesting, though, is how quickly a visitor forgets the wheelchair altogether. Price hates that so many people want to deal with him as a cancer survivor. "They all want to embrace me. I don't want to let them touch me," he growls, "but I'm in a wheelchair and can't get away."
Price's new book, "Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back" (Scribner: 408 pp., $35), is a memoir of his three years as a graduate student at Oxford in the late 1950s and his first three years back in the U.S.; it ends just before the publication of his first novel, "A Long and Happy Life" in 1962. Price went to England in 1955 as a 22-year-old mourning the death of his beloved father from lung cancer. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was puzzled by his father's relationship with an old friend who spent time at the deathbed. Did he have homosexual relationships or even romantic friendships? In any case, Price writes, in the wake of his father's death, he was homesick, and he was free to fall in love with men.
Price's memory is astonishing. He can't, he says, recall the day before yesterday, but the distant past is as fresh as a parallel universe. Nor does he believe in journals. "I once kept one for a solid year," he says, "and on the 365th day I practically fell over the finish line."
He has written that the self-hypnosis he underwent to relieve the pain of surgical scarring and radiation burns after his cancer surgery opened "great stretches of memory," resulting in his 1989 book, "Clear Pictures," a memoir of his childhood through his father's death. His second memoir, "A Whole New Life" (1994) covered the three years from the discovery of the tumor on his spine through the operations that left his legs paralyzed.
"Ardent Spirits," which took him four years to write, is every bit as vivid. It is the first time Price has written about his relationships, particularly his first real love -- Michael Jordan, a fellow student at Oxford. This was the great romantic friendship of his life. "I'd given him a pseudonym," Price says, "and I asked him to come over and read it." (Jordan, who is British, has a wife and children.) "I handed him this huge stack of paper, told him to make any notes and not to come downstairs until he was ready." A day or so later he came down and, in a tremendous and unforgettable vote of confidence, said, "Why have you deprived me of my name?"
"Ardent Spirits" is also a record of Price's early evolution as a writer. When Price first began to publish, many reviewers called him the heir to William Faulkner. Even then, the regional identification made him bristle. In a 1966 piece for the New York Times called "A Question of Influence," he expressed dismay that Southern writers were so often said to be "influenced" by Faulkner. "The search for influences in a novelist's work is doomed to trivial results," he wrote. "A serious novelist's work is his effort to make from the chaos of all life, his life, strong though all-but-futile weapons, as beautiful, entire, true but finally helpless as the shield of Achilles itself."
It's easy to imagine Price storing and updating details. There's a density of experience in his company. Just driving through his neighborhood inspires storytelling -- the old farmhouse recently purchased with an antique plow out front ("I wonder if they come from an old farm family"); the lonely goose who refuses to leave her pond even though there's a whole goose community just a few houses over; and, of course, the road on which Lord Cornwallis met George Washington. "I'll get lost," I say when I leave so Price can have physical therapy and rest a bit before dinner. "I hope so," he responds.
It may help that Price saves everything. He's an unabashed collector -- he still has the little container of mud, supposedly from Hitler's automobile, that he acquired when he was 11. One wall in his house is covered with icons. There's a saber-toothed tiger skull, a mask of John Keats (positioned at the poet's actual, and alarmingly short, height), a head of Buddha, a horse jaw, a human skull, watercolors, etchings and portraits of the author. On the bathroom wall there is a poem by John Updike, who came to visit once and cheerfully reported, in lieu of a simple thank you, that he had vomited up his host's prime rib the minute he returned to his hotel. (This is indicative of poor Northern manners.)
Price's office on the Duke campus is similarly appointed, with a drawing by Lucien Freud and photos of authors such as Leo Tolstoy, and actors like James Dean and Vivien Leigh. A student drops off a late term paper, with a note. Price pretends to be stern but assures me he has "the heart of a marshmallow."
"Here it is! Twenty-two pages from his heart's muscle!" he says with a trace of sarcasm.
The author is clearly well loved on campus, by fellow professors and also the men and women who work there, many of whom are black. When Price sees one man, who takes care of the chapel (clearly the two have known each other for decades), his accent gets richer and more musical. He is familiar with questions about lingering racism in the South.
"That man and I were born trapped in a culture that can't be escaped," Price says. "He and I have learned to weather a system in which we were born. I've lived in this world all my life, and I sink unplanned into that accent with 10 seconds' notice. The great sickness of this country is racism. It is not gone, and it is not going to be gone in my lifetime or yours."
As for other forms of prejudice, Price says he hasn't felt anti-"queer" sentiment on campus, but he does remember lying once, in the late 1950s, to a colleague about his sexuality. Homosexual acts were illegal at the time, and Price had seen his share of decent men (including the great actor John Gielgud) humiliated, their careers threatened in England.
Price isn't sure what he will write next, but he thinks it might be something about pain. So many people, he notes, live in constant pain with no relief. And yet, for him, pain has been no impediment to productivity. He wrote 13 books before his cancer diagnosis and has written 25 since. He has, he says, an excess of energy and he stays home a lot, which makes it easier to focus on his work.
In 1990, Price went to a middle school reunion. He hadn't seen most of the people there since 1947 and was astonished by how many didn't like their work and were happy to be retiring. They were looking forward to the RV and the grandchildren.
"I sat there thinking the last thing I want is to retire," he says. "I have no children, no RV, but I realized maybe for the first time, that I had done something I loved. I hadn't the faintest hope that it would end."
Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.