Sunday, March 6, 2011

Douglas Messerli | An Attack of the Heart (on Reynolds Price's The Tongues of Angels)


AN ATTACK OF THE HEART
by Douglas Messerli

Reynolds Price The Tongues of Angels (New York: Antheneum, 1990)

As I mentioned in My Year 2004, I met Reynolds Price only one time, when he appeared with a group of other Duke University professors, interviewing me for an assistant professorship. I think he asked me several questions, but only one remains in my mind, as he leaned forward to seriously query in his North Carolina dialect, "Mr. Messerli, do you intend to abandon Southern literature." Yes, I did indeed intend to give it up, since I felt, having written significantly on Faulkner and Welty, that I had rather worn it out. And that was pretty much what happened until more recently, when working on essays for my cultural memoirs, I have written on Tennessee Williams, Flannery O'Connor, and others.

But way back in 1978 I simply could not confess to that, and replied: "No, not at all. As you've noted, I've turned more recently to writing on what some might describe as "postmodern" authors. But I still believe there's much to be written about on writers like Doris Betts (a professor at the nearby University of North Carolina) and you, Mr. Price." I don't know if he bought that or not, but the others seemed genuinely pleased by my reply.

Unfortunately, Price never lived to see the honesty of my statement. He died early this year on January 20th. Immediately I determined to write something. But the only book I had previously read, A Long and Happy Life, was in the mid-1960s, a few years after it was published in 1962. I would have been happy to reread it, but our local Beverly Hills Library did not own a copy. So I chose, instead, a fiction from Reynolds' mid-career, coming after some of his better known works, A Generous Man, The Surface of Earth, and Kate Vaiden and before his completion of his Great Circle trilogy.

Accordingly, I'm not sure that this book is truly representative of Price's work, but it does seem honest and somewhat autobiographically based, or, perhaps, I should say it seems largely authentic, filled with the detail of a 1954 boys' camp in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains, where the 21 year-old "hero," Bridge Boatner, takes on the responsibilities of caring for several rowdy boys, living in large room in a summer camp. In that sense, Price's fiction might almost be read as an all-male version of his mentor, Eudora Welty's long story, "Moon Lake."

Like Welty's story, wherein one young orphan girl, Easter, seems far more mature and daring than the other giggling schoolgirls, in The Tongues of Angels, one young boy, Rafe Noren, also a kind of orphan (he has seen his mother and her maid murdered) possesses talents and knowledge that awe both the other "reedy voiced" boys and the young Boatner, a budding painter trying to lay to rest his own demons connected with father's recent death.

Rafe, blessed with a beautiful smile, but also mercurial and far too deep of a thinker for a boy of his age, helps Boatner to find his way not only in his painting, spurring him to do far greater things and simply to see far more that he has before, but also to deal with the past. Like most 21 year-olds Boatner is, in several ways, no more mature than the boys whom he must teach and care for. First of all, he is still a virgin. Secondly he is—somewhat like the author of this book—a sentimentalist; as he describes himself, he is an "easy weeper."

My eyes tear freely at the least intensification of gladness,
almost never at anger or grief. I fog up for instance at TV
commercials that advertise long-distance phone calls—sons
calling their mothers who drown in tears.

And finally, Bridge Boatner is simply unprepared for life. As an only child, he has been coddled and kept safe from the dangers that lurk in the corners of his young charge's eyes. A visit with another camp counselor to the Thomas Wolfe House in Asheville, almost leads him to promise to marry the young country girl living within. His friend Kev pulls him safely away from self-destruction.

So it is no surprise that a figure like Rafe Noren, the son of a wealthy plantation owner, who quotes the Corinthians bible passage behind the fiction's title—"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal."—should be somewhat incomprehensible to his elder; and, while Boatner is able to save the boy from a poisonous snakebite, in the end, he is unable to charitably give Rafe the love he truly needs.

There is almost a bitterness in Boatner's statement that the "really rich are different from you and me—they're starved. And what they crave of course is what we never give them. The way other people want peace and quiet, the rich want absolute love and loyalty in spite of their money."

It is his inability to show his love to Rafe that Boatner truly fails. But in presenting this figure the way he does, Price also takes an easy way out. The story he tells, apparently, is told to the narrator's sons, years later, as an explanation of the painting upon his wall and a kind of confession for what he sees were his failures. Yet, it is just not believable, given the character Price has created in Boatner, that he is a heterosexual with a sensitive past.

I can well understand why the author, himself gay, did not wish to implant a gay man in a room with young boys for several weeks. The complications of what that might suggest, and the critical reverberations would be more than painful. But yet the way Price tells this story calls out for that explanation for both the deep bonding of the two and the later withholding of love. It is as if Price has refused the implications of his own tale. I cannot for one moment believe Boatner's desire for a young woman named Viemme, who, the one time he calls, betrays him by staying out all night in a place she cannot be reached. Everything that moves him, that energizes Boatner and pushes him into ecstatic delights lies in the boy's camp, encapsulated in Rafe Noren and in the Indian lore taught by a Native American named Day, , both representing something "outside" the normative community. Finally, it is difficult to comprehend why the painter's request to "draw the boy" should invoke such guilt as Boatner displays if that offer did not implicitly contain the sexual implications the phrase often suggests. There is no real connection between his request and Rafael's subsequently being bitten by a rattler—unless it's a symbolic one.

It seems to me that Bridge Boatner needed far more understanding of himself than his creator has allowed him. Certainly his sexuality and his need to contain that in the situation in which he has found himself, would help to clarify the book's sad ending, in which the young beloved boy (seen as a true angel by everyone in camp) is found dead of a stroke at the sacred Indian prayer circle above their cabins. Price describes it as a stroke, while the reader understands it as an attack of the heart.

Los Angeles, March 6, 2011