THE SOURCE OF LIGHT by Reynolds Price


Email this review


Price has narrowed the breadth and time-frame of his last family-saga novel, The Surface of Earth (1975), down to two of that book's later principals: the North Carolina schoolteacher Rob Mayfield and his son Hutchinson. Now it's 1955; Rob, at 51, is dying at a gallop of lung cancer. Hutch, however, after a turn at teaching at a prep school, is antsy, wanting to test himself in the wider world--a fellowship at Oxford, room in which to gauge his fledgling poethood. So off Hutch goes to England, deliberately never told of his father's condition (which had come on fast). The relationship between the two men is complex to begin with. Made motherless at birth, Hutch's demands on still-young Rob did not allow the father to ever re-marry--and now he's dying prematurely; the guilt and obligations, therefore, lie thick on them both. Hutch is also leaving behind Ann Gatlin, a young woman of good sense and near-infinite patience (at first she seems to agree to walt for Hutch indeterminately). Rob soon dies, with great dignity; Hutch, informed by letter (one of many, many letters in the novel), comes back in time to be with his father at the end; he wavers over whether or not to stay afterwards; finally he returns to England, leaving Ann (and a baby begun in her, which she finally, patient no more, disposes of). Price's stylistic burnishments, his rich and decorous and often quite ravishingly affirmative prose, are in large evidence here. So too is his tireless digging for the smallest grace notes of human experience: ancillary characters--women Rob knew, an old black family friend, various young men with whom intensely physical, bisexual Hutch has linked up--are set in with the skilled care of Morandi painting bottles. Yet, all that said, the book will probably make most readers thoroughly uneasy. Hutch's quest for freedom often comes across as predatoriness camouflaged; he's barely likable, less trustable. In dialogue, characters address and answer one another with lozenges of such tooled perfection--sensible, graceful speech--that inarticulateness begins to seem like the deeper truth, not what they're endlessly saying so well. A nimbus of ideality--responsibility, accident, change--is thrown around the book, through which even the most well-intentioned reader may find no passage: a halo made of cast iron. And it weights Price's laudable purpose with an unfortunate load of self-righteousness.

Pub Date: April 23rd, 1981
ISBN: 0684813386
Publisher: Atheneum