A Man Who Learns the Steps It Takes to Go Home Again
Byline: Sudip Bose, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
From the first memorable line of his 1962 novel "A Long and Happy Life" - a dazzling, serpentine sentence describing a young couple on a motorcycle, a sentence that clearly owed its roots to Faulkner but that also announced a new and inimitable voice - Reynolds Price has steadily built one of the most durable, enviable bodies of work in all of Southern literature. To regionalize him thus is perhaps a disservice, however. For few other American writers other than John Updike have produced such a prolific variety of writing, including novels, short stories, nonfiction, and poetry.
"The Good Priest's Son," Mr. Price's 14th novel, is the story of Mabry Kincaid, a 53-year-old art conservator trying to return to Manhattan from a holiday in Europe on September 11, 2001. Unable to get a flight to New York, he is diverted to Nova Scotia for a time. But his lower Manhattan studio, he learns, is, like the rest of the neighborhood, uninhabitable, and so, with a longing "to see the father who'd deviled his mind from the age of six onward," Mabry journeys to North Carolina instead, to the small town where he grew up.
His father, the Rev. Tasker Kincaid, is in his 80s and wheelchair-bound, his needs attended to by a black woman named Audrey Thornton. When Mabry arrives, he is cast as something of a usurper - the prodigal son coming back after a lengthy absence to reclaim a place in a home that isn't his anymore. His estrangement from his father has created an uncomfortable emotional distance between the two, and the arc of Mr. Price's novel describes their attempt at reconciliation, the kind that is seemingly possible between stubborn people only when they are faced with the prospect of death.
For Tasker is close to his end, and Mabry has come down with a bewildering set of symptoms that might signal the onset of multiple sclerosis. Mabry is wracked not only with physical decay but with guilt, as well - guilt over a long history of infidelity, which led to the breakup of his marriage; over the subsequent death of his wife from breast cancer; over his abandonment of his daughter, Charlotte; over the death of his brother, Gabe, killed in a hunting accident at the age of 18. He is lonely, rootless and sick; he is, like so many male characters in Mr. Price's fiction, in desperate need of redemption. And his flaws are thrown in relief by the female characters who symbolize purity: A girl named Leah whom Mabry meets in Nova Scotia, and Audrey Thornton, too.
Among other things, "The Good Priest's Son" is a meditation on how the events in one's private life can be all-consuming even during times of grave public tragedy. The terrorist acts hover in the background of this novel, but they do so in a muted way, as if they aren't quite real. The magnitude of public events, great as it is, seems diminished when compared to the intensity of Mabry's search for emotional quietude. A general detachment about September 11 is palpable: "By now [Mabry had] sensed that neither his father nor Audrey Thornton, nor anyone he'd met in Nova Scotia, had shown any sign of really deep involvement in the huge event. Despite the big new TV in the corner, the awe hadn't truly reached this house at least. And would it ever?"
The novel's most powerful symbol is a painting that Mabry has recently picked up in Paris and that he brings with him to North Carolina. The canvas, a depiction of a French chateau supposedly painted by a 12-year-old American boy, was purchased by a lawyer named Baxter Sample, who hired Mabry to retrieve the work and conserve it. …