“I think we Southerners have talked a fair amount of malarkey about the mystique of being Southern.” Reynolds Price

Yesterday’s BrownBaggers book group took on Reynolds Price’s “A Good Priest’s Son,” and although this was not a long read (278 pages), it garnered a great deal of good discussion.  This book is his 36th and was written about his favorite location, his North Carolina homeland.  This puts him in the esteemed company of many a Southern writer.  In fact he is often compared to William Faulkner, which he disliked, and was influenced by Eudora Welty, which he encouraged.  When asked why he always wrote about his home, he said, “It’s the place about which I have perfect pitch.”

We began our discussion with an attempt to define Southern literature.  The group has read a number of authors who are considered or consider themselves Southern writers:  Mark Twain (“The Adventures of Mark Twain”), John Grisham (“The Painted House”), and Thomas Wolfe (“Look Homeward, Angel: a Story of the Buried Life”).  We did agree with Wikipedia’s entry on Southern lit that family connections, religion, Southern history and tradition, and a strong sense of place are among the prevalent themes in this genre.

“A Good Priest’s Son” definitely fits right in, but some of the BrownBaggers did point out that we have read authors from other areas of the country who deal with these themes as well: Alice McDermott (“Child of My Heart” and “Charming Billy”) and John Updike (“The Maples Stories”).  And we wondered how African American Southern literature would fit in and brought up “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston which carried the same themes as well.  Reynolds Price himself did say about the Southern experience:  “I think if we are realistic, the South – the old Confederate states – really only has one entirely unique feature that other parts of the country don’t have, and that is this nearly 400-year history of tremendous intimacy, in every sense of the word, good and evil, between two very different kinds of peoples: people who were brought here against their wishes from Africa and a largely Anglo-white population.”

This book about North Carolina is also Price’s “9/11” novel.  Yep, he brings this event into the mix – we were split on whether it worked or not as a backdrop to the plot.  The main character also discovers a mediocre painting that just might have been painted over an original Van Gogh.  There were other hooks that we wanted to lead us on a merry chase but in this many of us were disappointed.

The multiple characters held some interest but again more could have been done with them.  Some appeared with vigor to then disappear in a couple of pages.  Others carried through the book with no real purpose.

Reynolds Price was an award winning author, but our group did agree with these critics:

Brad Hooper in “Booklist” – “This novel is, then, about reconnecting with the past when the future is obviously so uncertain; unfortunately, the major plot elements do not coalesce into a strong, single story.  The 9/11 aspect seems, indeed, only a manufactured feature.  Price is avidly read, however, and library patrons with an interest in serious fiction will certainly be asking for his latest.”

Claire Messud in “The New York Times” – ”The Good Priest’s Son” is thematically rich — indeed, it is rather bowed by its meanings — and features many pleasing Southern voices, along with an impeccable depiction of the region’s deep-rooted traditions.  There are, however, lapses in the prose that may suggest a certain inattention in the post-9/11 rush to record Mabry’s story … despite such striking infelicities, Reynolds Price’s seriousness of purpose remains undeniable. He is a writer who addresses life’s urgent questions through characters much like ourselves — fallible, frightened, lonely, seeking comfort, and sometimes even redemption, in the maelstrom … Price’s point: even in the face of immense tragedy, each of us must still confront our own small struggles and must try…”

There is still worth in this book, and it did encourage some – not all – of us to seek out his more acclaimed novels.  Any to suggest?

A Reynolds Price Bibliography from the NetIndustries bibliographies website

For Price’s books at JMRL click here

~ The Reluctant Blogger

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