Off the Shelf: Earthy Southern comfort: Paul Binding on his admiration for the first novel by the American writer Reynolds Price

REYNOLDS PRICE'S first novel, A Long and Happy Life, came out in 1962, when he was only 29. Set in his native North Carolina it is a young man's work in its freshness, but in its concentration of form, and in its assured yet flexible style, it is remarkably mature.

It tells the story of the relationship between 20-year-old Rosacoke Mustian, a telephone operator, and her enigmatic, laconic, errant boyfriend, Wesley Beavers, who has been working in motorcycle maintenance in Norfolk, Virginia, ever since his discharge from the US navy. Rosacoke's brother, Milo, advises her that the only way to keep Wesley is to give in to him sexually. Eventually she does. But as a result of this one act of love-making she becomes pregnant. What, however, surprises her is that her condition brings out an unsuspected kindness and generosity in Wesley. The novel ends with the local church's Christmas pageant, at which pregnant Rosacoke plays Mary, and with our knowledge that she and Wesley will stay together, will be married, though there'll be harsh times ahead.

'It was by loving them he knew them', said Henry James of Balzac's relationship to his characters, and this is palpably true of Reynolds Price here: he knows his people intimately, warmly, yet unsentimentally. We know far more about Rosacoke's family - her marvellously characterised brother, Milo, at once coarse-mouthed and tender, and her feckless dead father - than we consciously appreciate while reading this closely textured novel. No wonder then that A Long and Happy Life is a book to be turned to again and again. Those of us familiar with it read the opening scene, with its funeral of Rosacoke's black friend Mildred, dead in childbirth, as a rich palimpsest of lives both black and white, in which secret truths lie for the finding. Those coming to it for the first time will be immediately absorbed into the feelings of the protagonists, into the very texture of existence in this wooded, tobacco-growing country.

In 1984 Reynolds Price became ill, suffering an astrocytoma in his spinal chord resulting in paraplegia. Characteristically, he has taken this as an opportunity for a new release of creative energy, including the writing of Good Hearts and a shortish novel, The Tongues of Angels (1990) which, with its portrait of a doomed rich Georgia boy, seems to me little short of a masterpiece. But it's as well to begin with this first novel, ultimately sombre and frequently courageous. The book has been available to Americans for 30 years. It would be no more than it deserves if in Britain too, where it's been many years out of print, it could have a long and happy life.

Reynolds Price will be reading at the South Bank on 24 July, 7.30pm

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