By Reynolds Price '55
307 pages, $265.
Reynolds Price's eponymous narrator is a North Carolinian man pushing fifty--tired, once credulous, now an unwilling and unwitting spiritual seeker. Noble Norfleet's life is driven by unforgiving questions: What is the nature of true vision? What is right worship? How does love work--not in the abstract, but in its everyday details?
In his unprepossessing voice, Noble shares the story of how he woke on Easter Sunday in his seventeenth year to find his brother and sister murdered by his mother's hand. It gets worse. Taken advantage of by a pedophilic clergyman (terminally ill and suicidal) and abandoned by a high-school teacher (raped by her brothers and father) with whom he was having an affair, he enlists as a medic and goes to Vietnam. Returning to the U.S., he becomes a nurse, exploring the upper reaches of hell in a children's burn ward and then a geriatric unit. He lapses into a deep depression, relieved only by his mother's release from the thirty-two-year prison sentence she served.
It might sound weird, but the action is not fantastical, nor is the narrator especially dramatic. If anything, Noble is a little tedious, with his strong opinions and stronger obsessions, his flat manner of speaking and thinking. The prose is translucent, and while in Price's fiction the workings of grace, like the workings of evil, may be banal, the stories captivate.
Noble Norfleet is about hunger and addiction. The pedophile's eyes "had the kind of hungriness I'd seen in truly lonely men during my earlier hitchhiking days." Of himself, Noble explains, "From the time my family left me, for years I just got more and more like some ferret on partial rations in a solitary cell at the back of the moon. No food that I could find on Earth filled my endless need." Consequently, "I'd addicted myself without knowledge to the world's cheapest drug."
Sex, that is. Specifically, he becomes addicted to cunnilingus, frightening away every woman with whom he might have had a prayer of a long-term relationship. Addictions representing a twisted search for God--one thinks immediately of Tarwater in Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away, who interprets his hunger for salvation as physical appetite. "While the South is hardly Christ-centered," O'Connor wrote, "it is most certainly Christ-haunted"--a remark that could serve as an epigraph to this novel. I think she would approve of Noble's mystical visions.
Whatever power the narrative voice of this noble, ignoble Christ-figure has is cumulative. Our hero has little insight, a sophomoric sense of humor, no capacity for wit. Yet, for all his insistence on being "the worst scarecrow in the field," the tale is rife with literary echoes.
More interestingly, Price unlocks a 166-year-old secret. The married minister who teaches young Noble the joys of fellatio is seen through his victim's eyes: "His own face was well-made but, to my eyes, it seemed to have a fine-gauged veil that moved around it as he stared or talked. It would half-hide his eyes for seconds, then his moving lips, then sometimes the whole face would seem to retreat and hide out from you."
Before Price's minister expiates his secret sin by committing suicide, Noble picks up some lessons from him, about worshipping God by worshipping the human body ("the altar of God on this earth at least"). Noble prefers women, whose bodies give off a "thrilling high sound," "like some kind of homing beacon for lost airplanes that calls me in." He takes his obsession dangerously far:
When I've read about the great serial killers, from Jack the Ripper to the present, I've wondered if there wasn't a trace of similarity between the wild engine that drove them and the drive that's possessed me right along.... There have been times--with truly magnificent women--when I've felt the powerful wish to keep their private zone, isolated from their body (and especially their mind) when they finally turned and left me. I mean keep it safe in a box nearby for my private use.
His enlightenment, his healing, is slow, painful, and partial, but it comes through reconciliation with his mother: "When we moved our lips to speak, what came out was a lot like music. Not words at all but wordless music, stranger than any I'd heard before; and you could almost see it streaming through the air above us like flags meant for battle but never used that way, clean and not torn."
Here is the Reynolds Price our ears love. Such passages are too rare: The novel's main flaw is that the author constrains himself by choosing a speaker who, most of the time, just doesn't get it, so that we are denied access to what we most value. Still, though the beauty of the prose is muted, the stylist does not let us down. There are flashes of light every few pages that make it worth the slog.
How does love work? Like this.
Baerman M.B.A. '90 is a frequent contributor to the magazine.