The Good Priest's Son
Reynolds Price's fourteenth novel, like so many of his previous ones, plumbs the ties that bind and fray and redeem a rural North Carolina family. But the trigger for this quiet drama comes, uncharacteristically in a novelist known for his timelessness, from a historic moment. The Good Priest's Son is set in the days that follow the cataclysm of 9/11. Not only novelists have realized that such extraordinary anonymous calamity weirdly evokes intensely personal and ordinary troubles and stirs the impulse to confront them.
A middle-aged Manhattan art conservator named Mabry Kincaid is airborne, returning from a business trip to Italy, when the pilot reports the news of the terrorist attacks. The plane is diverted to Halifax, where Mabry is housed with a kindly local family. In the hours that follow, Mabry reckons that his loft apartment, within eyeshot of the World Trade Center, is inaccessible at best. Learning that his grown and estranged daughter in New York is fine, and with nothing else to do, he resolves to return to the Carolina homestead to reconcile with his distant father, an irascible Episcopal priest at the end of his life.
Mabry carries home much baggage, full of personal laundry. Not long ago divorced, then suddenly widowed, and now the guilty beneficiary of his ex-wife's enormous estate, he is facing the onset of multiple sclerosis. Death's at the door for him, too. Home for Mabry is a world both familiar and unfamiliar. The Reverend Trasker Kincaid employs a black woman and her son to look after him, and Mabry's return is an intrusion on their equilibrium. Mabry and the tart-tongued Audrey Thornton spar, or flirt, while Mabry befriends her son Marcus, an aspiring artist who--like Mabry himself--witnessed the death of his brother. Mabry seeks out an old flame to soothe his psychic wounds, atone out loud for his sins (Mabry was compulsively adulterous), and reroot himself in his past with a roll in the hay. Ultimately, he and his father--and later, back in New York, he and his daughter--try to tell each other some truth, tough as it is to say and hear.
Threaded through this narrative of reversion and renewal is a feebly compelling mystery: the provenance of a small painting consigned to Mabry just before 9/11 by a man who died in the attack, leaving neither heirs nor clues.
It is the burden of even the most distinguished writer with a singular style and recurring preoccupations that, over time, even (or especially) the most devoted readers will begin to notice his tics or tire of his turns. No doubt this is the case in spades for the writer himself. When his old high-school buddy Vance asks if Mabry is sober enough to drive home after they've been drinking, our man replies, "I'm as right as a fifty-three year old scoundrel can be when he's lonely as any sidewinder in the sand and has almost surely got multiple sclerosis to add to his joys." It's one thing for an eccentric protagonist to talk this way, but Vance, a minor player, says things like, "Let me buy you a barbecue plate between this minute and the day you leave." When Mabry asks young Marcus Thornton if he is hungry, the kid replies, "I'm hungry all over the clock. You could wake me up at three in the morning, and I'd scarf down a cross section of a cow and three baked potatoes decorated all the way." Really, now.
Price must be subliminally aware of the staginess of his speech, for his characters frequently bow to one another in conversation--with ironic intent, but still. And one bow per novel is enough. I don't believe I've ever seen the word "plain" or "plainly" used so often; such folkloric octane as it has in a sentence is diminished, even caricatured, by repetition.
Along with being accused of writing the same novel over and over again, the great novelist must also bear the cranky complaint that he has written a different one; in this case, the complaint is in the same breath.
I refer to Price's awkward appropriation of 9/11 as a frame for his tale, a frame utterly detached from the portrait within. After the hazily rendered event, Price dutifully brings the subject up from time to time, but Mabry seems indifferent to the unfolding of the news, or the feelings it might engender, dismissing it as "repetitive." Of course, it was repetitive, but it didn't stop a society from seeing and hearing it over and over again, and speaking and thinking of nothing else. The night Mabry spends with the Halifax family--the night of September 11 itself--he has already digested the whole thing, is calmly planning his trip to North Carolina, and is more interested in telling a youngster about the little painting he is carrying than the fate of his friends and family or the nation. When he finally gets back to New York, we learn more about his fondness for the Algonquin Hotel than anything else about the shell-shocked city where he has lived much of his adult life.
Trasker Kincaid, the old priest, is the greatest enigma in the cast. He doesn't get much air time, and is not an attractive character. But he does answer my complaint of detachedness from global events. Confessing to Mabry his love for his long-dead son, presumably the "good" priest's son, Trasker says, "The end of the World Trade Center is nothing--nothing--compared to the death of that one child. He very well might have saved the Earth with his plain goodness, if he'd bothered to last."
Such moments of truth and pathos make even an imperfect Reynolds Price novel worth reading. Here's another to clip 'n' save--a realization that comes to Mabry at the Frick Collection in New York, staring at a Rembrandt self-portrait. The painting carries for him "a thoroughly common message but remade now with the force of the painter's power of hand and his straight delivery of three plain truths made oracular today by inimitable genius--You're no more lonely than any man or woman. Women's lives are tragic because they can seldom succeed in ceasing to love their children. Men's are lonely because they seldom truly love."