Written with grit and grace, this brief epic is a miniature masterpiece in counterpoint. Both tragic and transcendent, “Rules for Old Men Waiting” is grounded in two worlds as real as symphonies and mud. Its fated hero Robert MacIver bestrides his real world, which is bounded by rustic Cape Cod and arty New York, the rugby pitch and academe; he invents the second world, one of evil and honor, in the bloody trenches at Ypres during the Great War.
Eighty years old and failing fast, MacIver is the paradigm old man of the title who writes the rules that he himself must respect as he makes his peace with dying: “1. Keep personally clean. 2. Make bed every morning … . 7. Work every morning … . [This] work to consist of telling a story to the end, not just shards, but the whole pot.” Thus arises his composed story of war and deaths within the lived story of his ebbing life and loves. Day by day, he writes a tale of sound and fury, of body stripping in no-man’s-land and perfect valor, while his own life winds down like the antique gold watch on which the plot of his invention turns.
A Scot by birth and a rugby star, MacIver fought in World War II, and became a college professor in New York. He lived a wonderful life as a loved and loving husband, a doting and adored father, briefly a warrior and then for his long career thereafter a historian of war. He and his artist wife had “one of the great marriages of our time” an observer says, one that survives as great a cataclysm has ever befell wife and husband. Then Margaret died, slowly, at home, in their lovely ancient house in the Cape Cod woods near a secret pool, on the cusp of spring.
Now winter has come in every sense. MacIver is dying, alone by his own choice, snowbound in the summer house that is literally falling down, burning the boards and furniture to ease the cold, barely able to eat from the shrinking larder for some strangling cancer. Yet he will not go gentle, neither with a bang or a whimper, but awarely and with good purpose, composing a final fable and speaking a last lyric to unexpected visitors, “Hello, I think I may need some help.” This mortal admission comes in a remarkable instant: His surrender is an act of victory for this scholar who studies war, this alpha man in his omega moment.
Such links of opposites might read as drab ironies if written with a heavier pen than Peter Pouncey’s. But there is enough of something close to irony already: This heroic chronicle is a first novel; the story, both exquisitely vibrant and brutally violent, is the work of a retired academic. Spanning the 20th century, it is the condensed, concentrated vision of a classical scholar, a former dean of Columbia College and president of Amherst. Mr. Pouncey’s CV might list all those roles in life; now, more enduringly perhaps, he is a novelist as well.
Much of his book’s beauty lies in its evocations: the house in woods alive with owl, heron and osprey (but nary a linnet) somehow recalling Innisfree; the young sailor’s shipwreck on Cornwall’s Cornish coast and rescue by a lady of the cove recalling Odysseus and his enchanting island paramours. Much of the beauty comes from its interior counterpoint, an element that crescendos out of the recordings MacIver plays each evening after a supper of cookies mashed in warm water, the only food he can get down, followed by single malt scotch.
There is counterpoint between Britain and America, scholarship and combat, MacIver’s reality and his fiction; counterpoint between three wars, his aviator father’s, his own and his medic son David’s; counterpoint between David and the fated young heroes of the inner story, the artist and the gamekeeper; counterpoint between Margaret’s beautifully mystical paintings and raw gore of three wars. (The music is such a nice motif that I hope if the book becomes a phenom the next edition will include a CD of MacIver’s favorite passages from Mozart, Mahler and Beethoven. Call the disk “Music for Old Men Listening.”)
There is even counterpoint where some readers might see mixed metaphors, as in MacIver’s description of one hero whose father is a vicar beset by “benign puzzlement” and mother “a sweet woman, worked with nervous worry … . The boy, by Vagueness out of Dither, turned out placid. He moved indistinctly, with hardly a bow wave.” The dissonance in images — here the equestrian and the maritime — works within Mr. Pouncey’s melodic prose as one quiet soul finds his life’s mission in a war when he becomes the champion of valiant men and foe of Sergeant Braddis, as black a villain as any in modern fiction. There is even implied counterpoint in the books settings as a brave Scottish lad, a future American, makes a rite of passage worthy of an Apache’s vision quest by returning a stolen eagle’s egg to the aerie and nearly losing his scalp to a screaming raptor’s rapier talons.
After all, in counterpoint, whether musical or literary, there is resonance, and the hero of this little epic — along with its plot, structure and images — resonates with the immortals. In MacIver, Peter Pouncey has created a new denizen of the pantheon.
Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press, Inc., is the author of a prehistory of North America and of a history of Colonial Williamsburg.