Dying Generations

By Reynolds Price
Scribner. 353 pp. $24


IN HIS 1969 memoir Clear Pictures, Reynolds Price recalls sitting at his father’s deathbed. “We were father and son,” he writes, “bound in blood duty. He’d guarded my life for two decades. I guarded his death and, in it, he taught me the final lesson of life — how, hard as it is, death is no whit harder than the long trek toward it. And both things, the trek of life and death’s wide mouth, can be endured with dignity anyhow… if you’ve worked to bear yourself with the daily care that exudes a grace too fine to forget.”

This passage may come as close as any in Price’s work to suggesting the thematic thrust of The Promise of Rest, the disappointing last volume of a trilogy about the Mayfields of Virginia and North Carolina. The three novels, which chart the mutual estrangements and affinities of several generations of fathers and sons, vary widely in form and manner. Crammed with Mayfields and melodrama, The Surface of Earth (1975) is a hefty, familiar saga covering the period from 1903 to 1944. Its style is stately but self-conscious and overwrought: To indicate that Rob Mayfield masturbated, Price says he “honored himself”; when characters smile, their faces display a “spreading rictus of joy.” Such locutions occur less commonly in The Source of Light (1981), a briefer work about Price’s alter ego Hutch Mayfield, who in 1955-56 goes to Oxford, has a passionate affair with Strawson (“Straw”) Stuart and dutifully marries one Ann Gattin. The chief weakness here is Hutch himself, who’s callous, smug, wishy-washy and generally less interesting than Price seems to realize.

The Promise of Rest, set in 1993, finds Hutch a distinguished poet and veteran member of Duke University’s English department, a nest of high-profile theorists in which he apparently fills Price’s own longtime role as token old-fashioned man of letters. Now 63, Hutch lives alone: Ann has left him; and their architect son, Wade, 32, after remaining incommunicado for years, has returned home from New York to die of AIDS following his lover’s suicide. The lover, an African American named Wyatt Bondurant, passed the virus to Wade, an act that Hutch sees as a symbolic vengeance for slavery. Hutch looks forward to his time with Wade, hoping they’ll “get something right in a family that’s never engineered a right thing yet.” To see such a situation as, above all, a fresh chapter of Mayfield history is typical of Hutch, who more than once calls Wade the “best thing [he’s ever] made” and who views his ministrations more as a sacred paternal obligation — a milepost on “the family journey ” — than as an act of love.

Hutch, indeed, barely understands love as anything other than fleshly pleasure or family possessiveness. More than once, Wade calls him heartless: “Wyatt told me, the first night he met you, that you’d cut your heart off from the world the day you got married—he knew it on sight.” Straw (who’s married, but remains a platonic friend) makes essentially the same accusation: “I loved you, Hutchins. Have you lost that? I’d have spent my whole life bearing your weight, if you’d said the word.” Yet for ail Hutch’s failings, Price admiringly depicts him as a champion of Christian charity, Southern gentlemanliness and academic-liberal views on race, class and sex. But has Price created Hutch too much in his own image to see him clearly? Certainly when Hutch addresses such subjects as students’ writing skills and queer ideology, he seems an authorial mouthpiece, pure and simple. Nor does Price seem aware of the breathtaking condescension underlying Hutch’s view of blacks as “the angel burning to fuel human time.”

Yes, Price makes a point of Hutch’s selfishness in seeking to “own” Wade’s death and in regarding Ann and the dead Wyatt as rivals. Yet I think we’re also meant to note that Hutch, by hiding his true bent and forging a bad marriage, selflessly perpetuated the Mayfield line, whereas Wade has ended it. For Price, it sometimes appears, what ultimately matters is not that people be happy, whole or true to their identity, but that family be affirmed and preserved. When Hutch scatters Wade’s ashes at the Mayfield homeplace rather than bury them with Wyatt’s remains, it’s clearly intended as a beautiful symbol of family continuity, not as a contemptible denial of Wade’s union with Wyatt. Yet that’s how it feels. The book ends, moreover, with a surprising revelation (born of Price’s fixation on family secrets) that, while meaning to suggest the glorious prospect of another Mayfield generation, comes off as not only implausible but offensive.

There is, to be sure, much that is moving and memorable here. Compared to the earlier Mayfield novels, this one is direct, authentic and at times heartbreaking in its urgency; at best, it has a spare spiritual power reminiscent of David Plante. There’s nearly always been a distant formality in Price’s fiction, as if he were erecting a battlement of words to protect some vulnerable private place; here that quality is less pronounced than usual. Among the many affecting episodes are a last encounter between Wade and his centenarian cousin Grainger, and an offer by Hutch’s devoted gay student Maitland to help with Wade as “a partial payment to God or whatever for who I’m turning out to be.” Especially touching is a scene in which Hutch, at Wade’s bedside, reads Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art,” about her companion’s suicide.

But too much here feels wrong. Maitland’s fatalism (though newly liberated from virginity, he’s determined to die of AIDS) rings false; so does the sudden change by Boat, Wade’s AIDS helper, from a self-respecting young African American into an obsequious family-retainer type who begs Hutch for the truth about life and death. Even in emotional extremity, furthermore, Price’s people make pretentious conversation instead of just talking. In the end, this book feels at odds with itself, torn between a respect for individual integrity and the notion that family counts above all. That tension may be largely deliberate. But Price’s confused relation to, inadequate understanding of, and feebly justified sympathy for his unappealing protagonist make The Promise of Rest, for all its merits, an exasperatingly irresolute work.