THE GOOD PRIEST’S SON: A NOVEL
By Reynolds Price
Scribner, $26, 278 pages
REVIEWED BY SUDIP BOSE
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. But Baxter Sample worked at the World Trade Center, and with his death presumed and with the man having no known relatives, Mabry lays a careful, hesitant claim on the canvas.
He learns that the young artist responsible for the work lived next door to none other than Vincent Van Gogh, and Mabry becomes convinced that hidden away, beneath the painting itself and beneath a layer of grime, is an earlier painting made by the master himself. As an art conservator, Mabry is a practiced restorer, a cleaner of canvases, and the suggestion here is that concealed under the surfaces of both Mabry and the painting lies something glorious, something that might be retrieved if only the external ugliness can be stripped away. Indeed, two of Mr. Price’s characters — Leah and Mabry’s onetime lover Gwyn — cannot help but touch the painting when they encounter it, running their fingers sensually along its aged contours, this simple, tactile expression of love reminiscent of a healer laying his hands on the sick.
Of course, Mabry is a difficult character to embrace. He is self-pitying, a classic egoist, narcissistic, uncomfortable with race. When it comes to addressing not only his father’s black companions but also an Indian doctor at the local hospital, Mabry seems caught, uncertainly, between worlds — that of the Old South, with its outdated racial hierarchies still residing in his mind like an archetype, and that of the contemporary world in which he lives; his awkwardness when it comes with race is often on display, both in his speech and his interior monologues.
Mabry’s progression toward an acceptance of the world and his part in it (this understanding symbolized by the flashes of light and alternating periods of blindness that he experiences) hinges on an important admission, made by his father at the family’s cemetery: That the only person the Reverend Tasker Kincaid has ever loved in the world was Mabry’s dead brother, Gabe. “The end of the World Trade Center in New York,” Tasker says, “is nothing — flat nothing — compared to the death of that one child.”
Coming to terms with this devastating revelation is as hard for Mabry as one might expect. And though he feels a certain alienation from his birthplace as a result, he ends up embracing that very place — and the people in it — and begins to feel a part of something resembling a home. Mr. Price’s themes here will be familiar to those who have read his previous fiction: love, family, home, transience, rootedness. Only when Mabry “helplessly think of the Kincaid house as his actual home” can he feel “rooted — here and now — in the safety of his birthplace, an entire house which might as well have been the first good rocket soaring past the planet Neptune with him as its single still-breathing occupant.”
That last line is poignant in its complexity. Yes, Mabry feels the enduring power of place, but a sense of loneliness accompanies it that verges on the cosmic. Still, his salvation lies in his ability to reconnect with both his birthplace and his loved ones, in the almost startlingly simple but profound realization that he can indeed go home again.
Sudip Bose is senior editor of Preservation magazine.