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Penetrating A Small Patch of the Surface of Earth

ISSUE:  Autumn 1975
The Surface of Earth. By Reynolds Price. Atheneum. $10.95.

WHEN a work of fiction as compelling and original as Reynolds Price’s latest novel comes along, it deserves evaluation in its own terms. Why should the reader worry if, in its relatively straight forward narrative, its rich, rhythmical and rather formal language and its brooding obsession with family as a kind of fate which a child must come to terms with before he can be free “to walk clean away into his own life,” it seems to be out of step with the march of most contemporary fiction?

More important is the fact that it meets what seems to me the supreme test of a novel: it manages to recreate a world and people it with characters as complex and stubbornly mysterious as those in life, and it draws the reader into that world—sensually, emotionally and intellectually— to the point that he experiences those lives and earns whatever insights may be gained from them.

In this, his longest and most ambitious novel, which took ten years of planning and three years of writing, Reynolds Price focuses on the harm that parents do, through the flawed choices, emotional failures and unsatisfied hungers they pass on to their children unto the third and fourth generation. Indeed, the biblical estimate seems conservative here when one considers that although the action begins in 1903 on the evening of 16-year-old Eva Kendall’s elopement with her Latin teacher, Forrest* Mayfield, the book opens with a conversation in which the Kendall children are drawing from their father details of their maternal grandfather’s suicide. (“What’s shameful, sir, in wanting the truth?” Eva asks “We’re all nearly grown. . . . It’s our own story.” ) And the novel ends, 491 pages later, with that suicide’s great-great grandson, Hutch Mayfield, struggling to put his heavy inheritance behind him.

A narrow focus? Perhaps. But unquestionably an important one which takes the reader beneath the surface of events into the interior world, even the unconscious world, of the principal characters.

Only after I had closed the book and separated myself from the Mayfields and the Kendalls did I begin to think about what the book lacked in variety of pitch, the leavening effects of humor and attention to immense social forces, the two World Wars and the Depression, for example, which must have touched even families as remote and self-absorbed as these in rural North Carolina and Virginia.

This curious deafness to the din of the world outside the family may be partially explained by the fact that Mr. Price presents his characters to us during periods of emotional crisis when they are forced to make, in minutes, choices that they and their children will spend decades, even lifetimes, living out.

The technical decision to present the family epic in three sections, representing episodes in 1903—5, the 1920’s and 1944, was a happy one, I think. It gives the narrative the energy that comes from compression and forces the reader to become actively involved in piecing together what has happened during the intervening decades from random scraps of conversation and recollection, just as one must do, for example, at a family reunion.

Despite the book’s length and what begins to seem toward the end a plethora of explanations and confessions from the characters themselves, the narrative remains, on the whole, surprisingly succinct, displaying Mr. Price’s gift for catching whole landscapes in a few images, whole characters in a few telling gestures or fragments of talk. And what a luxury it is to be immersed in his magestic prose.

There is, however, a static quality to the novel as fragments of human experience are seized and held for microscopic observation, then analyzed at length from shifting points of view in dreams, in letters and in endless talk. This quality is suggested in the Blake-like image which the author has designed for the jacket of the book—a fixed sun face gazing with an intensity that threatens to burn through surfaces to the mysteries beneath them.

Admittedly, only a small patch of the surface of earth is under scrutiny here, a geographic area bounded on the south by Raleigh and Fontaine, North Carolina; on the north by Richmond and Washington; on the west by Goshen and the Shenandoah Valley; and on the east by the Atlantic at Virginia Beach. But this small area is evoked with such authority and examined so relentlessly that the reader feels, at times, perilously close to penetrating to that core which one character defines as “the heart of the world . . . the precious meaning of life and pain.”

When one of the most talented novelists of our day sets this kind of revelation as his goal, it is cause for celebration by all of us who, like Forrest Mayfield, still hope to find in fiction some “wisdom” that “will prove more useful and slightly less wearing than the raw fray of life.”

The fact that his Promethean effort is only partially successful should not diminish our respect for its daring and its high seriousness. Reynolds Price, himself, seems to be acknowledging the limits of the individual artist in several key passages near the end of the novel which I would like to quote here.

The thoughts are those of Hutch Mayfield, Eva and Forrest’s only grandson, the youngest of the ten lives “bent crooked” by the reckless elopement with which the novel begins. The scene is a hillside near a delapidated resort hotel in Goshen where the 14-year-old boy has come to rest away from his father, Rob, and where he is considering beginning his own life as an artist:

By noon Hutch was thinking he’d finished his picture. It was clear lines drawn with his best hard pencil, no smearing, no shadows. . . .

It was the one thing he had made this morning, unaided, from what the earth offered of its visible skin—the surface it flaunted in dazzling stillness, in the glaze of rest, to beg us to watch; then grope for its heart. . . .

Hutch realizes that he has drawn the leaves “badly” but appreciates the fact that “the opposite rocks, the back of the mountain, the line of Alice’s back and head, her farmer’s hat—they were right and true, his own gift offered to the world in return.” He reaches for an eraser to strip the leaves from his trees, then remembers his great-aunt Rena’s warning when he began to modify the clear lines of an earlier drawing:

May I tell you? The whole world is waiting to see what you are ruining.” He had stopped and said, “Ma’m? I’m not that good”; and Rena said, “Not you—the secrets of God. The whole world is waiting in expectation for the revelation of the secrets of God. You’ve just now drawn their excellent likeness and are ruining it.”. . .

So he spared the trees now. He trusted to wait till the secret of leaves, if nothing more, came into his power. First the power to watch one green leaf in stillness; then the dark banked branches in all their intricate shifting concealment— concealed good news (that under the face of the earth lay care, a loving heart, though maybe asleep: a giant in a cave who was dreaming the world, a tale for his long night) or concealed news of hatred embellished with green (that a sight like this or a shape like Rob’s was only the jeering mask of a demon who knew men’s souls and guided their steps). It seemed, now at least, that any such power would come here if anywhere. This place was an entrance. He’d need to wait here.

Beyond the description of artistic failure, as well as success, I read here a commitment to keep on working “at the entrance” which I hope comes, through Hutch, from Reynolds Price himself.

Although this powerful novel seems in the end to be over-weighted with wordy explanations of the emotional demands, debts and failures that constrict the Mayfields’ and the Kendalls’ lives, it represents a leap forward by a gifted novelist into visionary territory which few of his contemporaries have the courage to explore, territory which, if conquered, can yield the hard-won wisdom of the human heart.

Everyone who is interested in serious fiction ought to read it.


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