Book Review: Midstream
by Reynolds Price
The sultry, predatory, arrogant young thing on the cover of Reynolds Price’s 2009 memoir Ardent Spirits was something of a shock to most readers; here was a louche, bestubbled hot-shot, a postwar Bret Easton Ellis sprawled amidst the morning’s cups and jars, already plotting the night’s absinthe-fuelled prowl. The shock came not to expectation (good-looking young novelists being, after all, as predictable as the swallows of Capistrano) but of recognition: could this really be the same Reynolds Price who’d been a beloved, Augustan fixture of Duke University for half a century?
Reading ten words of Ardent Spirits of course answered that question right away. Stories started pouring out, all told with that honeyed, balanced perfection, that tamely ribald disarming honesty, that relaxed, piazza humor, and those stories were as infallibly Reynolds Price as his fingerprints. Reading the pages turned the shock into a pleasure of remembering that once, the white-haired, wheelchair-bound elder statesman of American Southern literature had been young like everybody else.
Or perhaps not quite like everybody else. The attention-garnering short stories, the star-studded stay at Oxford, the imminent publication of his first novel A Long and Happy Life, a book that lodged on the New York Times bestseller list and opened the world – these things aren’t given to many twenty-somethings. In that earlier book, readers could relish it all like they would a good (though not at all Price-like) novel.
Midstream, the unfinished posthumous continuation of the memoir now out from Scribner, picks up where the earlier volume left off (this book covers 1961 to 1965, taking us to England and then back to the United States), but the present is already swiftly converging. The Reynolds Price standing under a bright sky on the cover of Midstream is still impossibly young, but already his face has taken on the habitual curves of kindness and gentle insight that would only keep deepening as the years went by. Likewise inside: the pleasure of telling stories has now firmly become the point of telling stories. The barbs and hooks of passion have been blunted. Recounting the story of walking back from the wedding of his friend and lover Matyas at Oxford (alongside Matyas’ countryman Karol), Price matter-of-factly shoos the bittersweet out of the seat he’s reserving for the dinner-table-enrapturing punchline:
As we proceeded along Ship Street, laughing as we went, Karol suddenly burst into even higher laughter. He’d just noted that, from an overhanging tree branch, a small bird had shat copiously on my shoulder. Of course I said to myself something like That truly puts the tin lid on it! But once Matyas and Karol had recovered from a gale of laughter, they assured me that being shat on by a bird was, in their native country, considered great good luck. Since it was the second wedding I’d attended since summer – each marriage involving someone whom I loved – I needed perhaps more bird shit in my life.
This is at once permissible: it was a happy life, happily recalled. Here are the great figures of his Oxford years – Stephen Spender, Neville Coghill, Lord David Cecil, all glowingly revived in precisely-utilized details that give us more than pages of exposition could … and always with a tone of gratitude, their shades summoned so that Price can thank them, as in a typically deft aside about Cecil:
Despite an occasional sound of faded Edwardian rhetoric in his written essays – a sound that drove his gruesome bete noir, F. R. Leavis, into near foaming seizures of rejection – I ultimately learned more critical truths from David Cecil than from any other of my teachers …
This is an unfinished work, and perhaps some of the journal volume memory-jogging that crops up often in these pages (“I woke early, breakfasted in bed – a soft-boiled egg, two rolls, the usual apricot jam, and coffee – and slept again till ten. It was pouring rain at the window, so I spent the remainder of the morning reading indoors,” etc.) would have been polished out of the final version, although perhaps not. Price the story-teller took a joy in the well-deployed mundane detail that Price the memoirist can’t be expected to forego. That love of the and-then-and-then patter of conversation is the fatal flaw of Price’s fiction, translating into a narrative timidity that will likely keep A Long and Happy Life and all the novels that followed it confined to the lesser ranks of period regionalism. In many ways, these memoirs are the best novels he ever wrote.
In her Introduction to this volume, Price’s student Anne Tyler remarks that he was “an exclamation point in a landscape of mostly declarative sentences,” and certainly he could seem so, through the happy little jolt of current that he introduced into everything he did, from his lectures to his marvellous creative writing seminars (where even the most obdurate soul would be gently brought as far as they could go into the well of understanding), to the hope-infusing burble of his chat. Not for him the bitter myopia that has always characterized the worst excesses of Southern Gothic slap-dashery – at one point in Midstream, our author has the chance to meet the architect of all that pan-fried hooey, William Faulkner himself:
He was nattily dressed, as I’d heard he would be; and his hair was pure white in the warm patch of sun all around him. In fact he was isolated in a column of light, looking straight ahead at a block-sized graveyard immediately across the narrow street – old tombstones shaded by huge trees. He seemed at least as alone as any nearby corpse, so I suddenly thought I’d move up toward him and introduce myself.
Faulkner is whisked away before Price can work up the nerve to approach him, and he dies soon after, bitter, wrecked, and unloved in a Mississippi sanitorium for drunkards. Price lives another half-century, teaching generations of students to love Virginia Woolf and the Bible and Milton and the discipline and joy of finding their own writing-voices. He kept writing novels that whole time, and he generated a small handful of these wondrous little memoirs, capturing some glint of himself in each like fireflies in a glass. Midstream is the last flicker of that self readers will ever get; they should treasure it.