26 December 2009

Reynold Price's Good Hearts (1988)

This is a strange, complex, and disturbing book. At the end of A Long and Happy Life (1962) Rosacoake Mustian, pregnant by Wesley Beavers, is not entirely happily entering a shotgun wedding. But ever since she fell in love with Wesley several years before, when he was up tree and threw pecans down to her, Rosacoake had her eyes on Wesley. Even if it had taken a crude rhyme like 'Pull down your petticoat, pull down your drawers/Give him one look at old Santy Claus' from her one-woman-only brother Milo to encourage her to relinquish her long-preserved virginity, she'd kept her man, hadn't she?

Twenty-six publication years and twenty-eight fictional years later, in Good Hearts (1988), Rosa (who has dropped the 'coake') and Wesley (who now feels dead) are still married. Reynolds Price called this his 'druggy novel' not because of the drug content - which is reduced to a casual comment on the contemporary inappropriate nature of Rosa's original final syllable - but because he wrote this novel on prescribed drugs after he'd been diagnosed with a cancerous tumour. Drugs or not, this is an interesting book.

It helps enormously to be aware of the family politics in Price's novels (in which families are of great importance) although even then things are difficult. Horace is Rosa and Wesley's son and Pris is his wife; Rato is Rosa's brother, and although he has mental problems, this knowledge doesn't make this conversation any easier to understand:

'Rato said "I learned to love spice in Spain. I can't see why it don't work in America."

'Pris said "It does now. At my house anyhow."

'Horace said "She's got me massaged in garlic. I can't see how I grew up without it."

'Rosa said "Well, you did. Somehow against all odds you survived. And look at you now, strong and healthy to watch."'

The key to this is that Rosa hates Pris, and thinks she's far too refined. But generally, people get on in Price's world without gouging each other's eyes out. Brothers-in-law Wesley and Milo have limits concerning how far they can mock each other, and those limits can be stretched greatly, although Wesley almost breaks those bounds when he, a very experienced motor mechanic, is invited by Milo to comment on his new Pontiac, of which he's very proud:

'No, Milo, look - you love your new car. It's exactly what you wanted, and it matches [your wife's] hair. Just roll back, cross both hands on your belly (it's swelling nicely by the way), and try to forget that day by day Wesley works on Mercedes, BMWs, Bentleys, and moviestar-customized Alpha-Romeos. Every now and then I lower my standards, double my prices, and tune up a Jag. But it's been six years since my soft hands ever touched a piece of Detroit tinfoil dogshit'.

But these men know each other's 'destruction buttons', and intend to grow old together: 'old and even more knowing, more nearly each other's mirror-self like the best male friends who stop short of touching'.

Wesley is welcomed into his extended family even after he's walked out on his wife and his job in Raleigh, North Carolina, and driven to Nashville, Tennessee, where he lived with Wilson for three months, a woman half his age, and the sex was great until she told him to get a divorce to leave her free to marry him, or get out of her life. So Wesley returned to his wife, but did supernatural means force him to do this?

The main problem the novel has is Wave, who appears towards the end and is a person or a symbol, or perhaps both, but who poses problems in terms of both the plot of the book and to the book's approach to moral concerns. Wave, if he is to be understood as a real character, is some form of sociopath who not only feels no remorse about raping women, but believes that he is performing them a service. But if, on the other hand, Wave is a kind of angel who brings Wesley back together with Rosa, then is this divine intervention entirely acceptable - particularly to a contemporary reader?

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