Off the Shelf: Earthy Southern comfort: Paul Binding on his admiration for the first novel by the American writer Reynolds Price
Saturday 23 July 1994
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
Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Katie Hopkins gives rare glimpse of sensitive side with heartfelt open letter to her children penned in case she dies from epilepsy
- 2 Rihanna's Met Gala dress took one Chinese woman 2 years to make, was reduced to omelette meme in 2 seconds
- 3 Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
- 4 Frankie Boyle on Scottish independence: 'In the Interests of Unity, F**k Off'
- 5 Florida couple forced to register as sex offenders for having sex on public beach
Penny Dreadful, series 2 episode 1, review: It is still gloriously silly
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
Eurovision 2015: What date and time is the song contest and who are the favourites to win?
How the Other Half Eat, Channel 4 - TV review: Swapping food trolleys shows how food and class are closely connected
Noel Gallagher 'cannot wait' to hear Oasis-inspired One Direction album but rants about 'pointless' Tidal and Spotify
In defence of liberal democracy
General Election 2015: Post-election 'shambles' looms as 70 per cent of voters say SNP 'should not be able to veto UK government policies'
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils