A modern master takes a gloomy look at the damage wrought by mental illness.
Noble Norfleet, senior in a small North Carolina high school, member of the track team, polite oldest son of a vanished father and difficult mother, wakes one morning after a pleasant and instructive romp with his Spanish teacher to discover his brother and sister dead in their beds, having been ice-picked in their sleep by their mother, who could have done in the exhausted Noble, too, but didn’t. This is not a total surprise for Noble. Edith Norfleet has exhibited psychotic symptoms for years, but, this being the ’60s and the pre-Republican South, she’s been pretty much left to make life hell for her family. The prolific Price (A Perfect Friend, 2000, etc.) follows his square-shooting but, alas, humorless young hero through the process of committing Edith to the state facility and getting on with his life. There is unsatisfactory contact with his only close relative, an unhelpful uncle, more satisfactory contact with the Spanish teacher, whose nice husband is in Vietnam, helpful dealings with the crusty black lady who used to clean for Edith, and some surprising counseling sessions with the local minister, who is every bit as attracted to the handsome young lad as the Spanish teacher was. Noble’s cooperation with the clergyman leads to a slightly spooky weekend at the beach and further tragedy. The Spanish teacher returns to her own incestuous family. Time moves on. Noble enlists in the army, becomes a medic, visits Edith occasionally, goes to war, has more slightly spooky experiences, becomes a nurse, and learns over time that black people never let him down and that he’s happiest in one-sided sexual contact with women (he’s the worker—they just have to lie back and relax), only to find that that’s not enough for most women.
An ultimately unknowable hero in extreme and hopeless situations makes a tough read for non-pessimists.