A strong debut about a dying historian—from the 67-year-old former president of Amherst College.
Robert MacIver is an 80-year-old war historian, a proud Scot long resident stateside, dying slowly and alone in an ancient house in the woods on Cape Cod. His beloved wife, Margaret, has died recently in the same house, and MacIver sees no reason to linger. He is not, as the famous Dylan Thomas poem has it, raging against his going, but neither is he going gentle, though rage and gentleness are the novel’s key concepts. Instead, he chooses a middle way, an orderly departure. Alarmed by visions clouding his mind, he takes himself in hand, fixing regular meals; he also embarks on a short story, containing through art the rage that grips him at the loss of loved ones. MacIver’s creation is deftly interwoven with highlights of his own life: the death of his father in WWI (his first great loss); his success as a rugby player and academic; his meeting Margaret, an accomplished painter, in New York; his blissful life with her and their only child, David; David’s early death after serving as a medic in Vietnam (his second great loss); MacIver’s subsequent marriage-threatening rages; and then the return of calm and marital happiness. A constant theme is MacIver’s violent nature and the antidote of Margaret’s gentleness. In his short story, MacIver envisions a drama played out between four soldiers in the WWI trenches. One, a good soldier but a psychopath, murders his commanding officer; that murder is avenged by a private, an outstanding artist stirred to his own murderous rage. Completion of the story eases MacIver’s path to death.
Despite minor flaws (sometimes overreaching, Pouncey tends to push his points too hard, and David’s pivotal decision to volunteer feels manufactured), this has a power and piquant unexpectedness that raise it far above the general run of first novels.