Complications north and South
THERE seems to be scarcely an American writer who has not been drawn to the events of 9/11. Now it is the turn of the prolific Southern novelist Reynolds Price.
In “The Good Priest’s Son,” his 36th book, Price has his Southern protagonist, Mabry Kincaid, an art conservator, living in a loft near the World Trade Center. That fatal morning Mabry -- no name could be more Southern -- is flying home from France with a small picture for a New York client. His plane is diverted from New York to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Cosseted for a couple of days by a hospitable Canadian family, Mabry, who is 53 and a widower, finds out that his loft, unapproachable behind police lines, is awash in powdery debris. The client for whom he brought the picture is probably dead in the towers’ collapse. So he decides to visit his father, a retired Episcopal priest who is living in the old family home in eastern North Carolina.
This decision sets in motion the plot, which is an examination of the relationship between father and son; their relationship with the late wife and mother; Mabry’s with his grown daughter; and both men’s with the African American woman who is caring for the elder Kincaid after a fall. All the while Mabry suspects he has the early symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
If all this sounds elaborate and complicated and oh-so-Southern, it is.
Price has the Southern literary impulse to tell a story without the finesse of, say, a natural-born storyteller like Eudora Welty. So sometimes he writes with delicacy, to the point, and sometimes he sounds like a parody of the genre.
Here he describes a scene in which his protagonist has just telephoned a woman he had slept with, and to whom his father had given communion:
“Mabry knew he’d badly offended her and cheated on his father’s confidence. I’ll call her back in another few minutes. Just give me some air. The stale air in the shut-up house seemed a powdered dry poison, and he moved toward the front porch. But before he was there, great bone-dry heaves climbed up his throat like hands on a rope and stopped him in his tracks. He could tell himself, rightly, that this was no symptom of any disease but a poor-assed son’s inadequate guilt for long stingy years with a parent who can never have meant worse than kindness.”
In anyone’s book, that is sloppy writing: ragged in its emotional aspect, an example of braggadocio with a touch of self -pity.
The dialogue between father and son is likewise archly fancy and scarcely credible. A typical example:
Son: “What time is lights out on the local scene?”
Father: “Anytime your city-dwelling heart requires.”
As an accomplished novelist, Price does create some memorable characters, notably the Australian butler/factotum for the now-dead client. The African American woman who “does for” the elder Kincaid is drawn with some sensitivity. The total effect, though, is of a writer who has some arresting ideas but who lacks the patience to work them out in a way that is satisfying to the reader either aesthetically or morally. Too many loose strings on this carelessly done-up package.
Anthony Day, the former editor of The Times editorial pages, is a regular contributor to Book Review.