Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Faith & Joy

Reynolds Price

Reynolds Price
Courtesy of Duke University

One of the few people who could reach me on the topic of faith was the novelist Reynolds Price. He died January 20 in Durham, North Carolina. In his memoir of surviving spinal cancer, A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing, he wrote about a vision of Jesus pouring water over his back. Despite this suggestion of healing, he went forward with radiation treatment, which left him a paraplegic. He suffered for the rest of his life from pain and disability—but he lived. And wrote several more books. His various memoirs mention faith, but not in a doctrinaire way. Indeed, he referred to himself as an “outlaw Christian.”

Growing up gay in North Carolina must have been difficult. His first serious affair took place in Oxford when he attended the university as a Rhodes Scholar. But he didn’t discuss this widely until he published his third memoir, Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back, in 2009. Price wanted to be called an American writer, and begrudgingly accepted the term “Southern writer.” Like that phrase, “queer writer” would have been too narrow. On Charlie Rose and elsewhere, he said he didn’t think Americans were that interested in queer relationships, so he didn’t write about them. When Rose brought up Brokeback Mountain, Price responded that the short story made a great movie, but it didn’t win a Oscar for best movie or screenplay but for best director. At his military physical, he declared himself homosexual and didn’t serve. He wasn’t in the closet, yet he didn’t write much about his personal affections. He left scholars 38 books to look into for clues.

This novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

This was my introduction to Price's fiction.  It is one long letter.

The novels contain entire worlds of families and individuals left adrift and searching for mercy. He could write in male or female voices, rich or poor. I think that his otherness gave him the perceptiveness to travel around all kinds of lives.

He was best known for fiction, but his second memoir, about his illness, brought him a whole new readership. I went to many readings, and the audiences seemed to be split between literary fans and fans of healing. They didn’t cross over except perhaps in sharing the quest for mercy themselves.

He had a rich deep voice that could read anything. I would have traveled far to hear him if he hadn’t come to the Bay Area so often because his writing and his person conveyed compassion. Readings often bring out predictable questions, but he did not condescend and answered each question with compassion. Compassion because the person was unique even if the question was not. Compassion because every human being suffers some kind of pain.

When Terry Gross asked him if life would be unbearable without faith, he replied, “I’ve never thought of that.” Later in the interview, he said, “I am a great believer in joy.” I never spoke to him, but I loved him.

These are Price's three memoirs.  I only wish there were going to be more.

Here are a few videos worth watching.




Terry Gross’s interviews can be found on www.npr.org.