22 December 2009

Reynold Price's A Long and Happy Life (1962)

'Just with his body and from inside like a snake, leaning that black motorcycle side to side, cutting in and out of the slow line of cars to get there first, staring due-north through goggles towards Mount Moriah and switching coon tails in everybody's face was Wesley Beavers, and laid against his back like sleep, spraddle-legged on the sheepskin seat behind him was Rosacoke Mustian who was maybe his girl and who had given up looking into the wind and trying to nod at every sad car in the line, and when he even speeded up and passed the truck (lent for the afternoon my Mr. Isaac Alston and driven by Sammy his man, hauling one pine box and one black boy dressed in all he could borrow, set up in a ladder-back chair with flowers banked round him and a foot on the box to steady it) - when he even passed that, Rosacoke said once into his back "Don't" and rested in humiliation, not thinking but with her hands on his hips for dear life and her white blouse blown out behind her like a banner in defeat.'

This amazing first sentence - all 192 words of it - marked the debut of a major novelist: Reynolds Price is from North Carolina, and was praised by, among others, Harper Lee and Eudora Welty for this book, A Long and Happy Life (1962), also the first book in the Mustian trilogy.* Constance Rooke called it 'a clarion call annoucing the start of a long career', and Price continues that distinguished career today, although he is surprisingly little known.

In Understanding Reynolds Price, James A Schiff calls the language 'sexually charged', and although he notes Price's ability to 'cross gender lines', he also realises that Price is in a sense proclaiming, and rejoicing in, his homosexuality in many of his works: 'Price seems far more interested, at least in his Mustian novels, in male sexuality and beauty. The central erotic figure in each Mustian novel is a desirable, handsome, and virile male [...], who attracts the gaze of women and men alike'. Price has turned around the norm: Rosacoake is just as (if not more than) central to the book as Wesley, but it's the male rather than the female body that is seen as sexually exciting.

*The two other novels are A Generous Man (1966), which concentrates on Rosacoake's brother Milo Mustian and is set in 1948, when Milo was nine year younger, and Good Hearts (1988), which is set 28 years after A Long and Happy Life, when Rosa (as she is now called) and Wesley Beavers have been married 28 years. A precursor – the long short story concerning the Mustians, 'A Chain of Love' – was published in 1958, and the play Early Dark (1977) is not a dramatization of A Long and Happy Life so much as it is that novel viewed from a differnet perspective.

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