Monday, January 24, 2011

Remembering Reynolds Price

In spring 2009, I went to Duke University to interview Reynolds Price about his new memoir, "Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back." That's how I ended up one morning in his legendary John Milton class, listening to him read from "Samson Agonistes" in his rich baritone: "This one prayer yet remains, might I be heard. No long petition -- speedy death."

At that moment, he certainly sounded like the Oxford-educated intellect he was.

But a few minutes later, the discussion grew lively -- and much more informal -- as Price lobbed questions and students offered answers on the motivation of Dalila, Samson's estranged wife.

Price, too, had a few thoughts about the couple. "Apparently," he said, "they were good sexual partners."

I interviewed Price later, after he took his daily break for physical therapy, required to stimulate blood circulation in his legs. By the time we finished, Price was offering to give my two teenagers a tour of Duke if they were interested in applying to the school. I felt like I'd made a new friend.

I've been replaying that lovely day in my mind since last week, when I wrote Price's obituary following his death Thursday afternoon at age 77. I think we cited most of Price's major accomplishments in the obituary, yet I left the newspaper building that night feeling there was so much more I wanted people to know. I wanted to mention:

--He was killer handsome. Check out the photo of a young Reynolds on the book cover above. The guy could have been a film star.

--He had a great sense of humor. Read "Ardent Spirits" and you'll see it. The memoir recounts six important years in Price's life, from 1955, when he left North Carolina to study as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford, to 1961, when he finished his first novel, "A Long and Happy Life." It's full of lively anecdotes. Like the time he and his new British friends were discussing dancing and Price asked the group if they also shagged: "My friends took a gap-mouthed moment of silence, staring at their plates in a textbook illustration of the British idiom for sudden embarrassment, I didn't know where to look. Then at last Michael said, "Well, seldom on the actual dance floor."

--He inspired, encouraged and mentored so many writers. Allan Gurganus ("Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All") was about 12 when he read "A Long and Happy Life." It was a revelation. Gurganus, who grew up in Rocky Mount, told me he had no idea you could set a novel in North Carolina until he read Price. "This was galvanizing," he said.
Price later became his mentor. "He has thousands of people who've been enlarged by him," Gurganus told me. "And I think he's especially good with beginners."

I could go on. He enjoyed watching soap operas. In his younger days, he sometimes wore a long black cape to class. Along with novels and plays and poetry, he wrote song lyrics, television commercials and, once, the text of a Calvin Klein ad.

Price had been in a wheelchair since treatment for spinal cancer left him a paraplegic in the mid-'80s. He lived with pain, yet hid it well. It was past deadline last week when my colleague, Bruce Siceloff, finally reached Price's brother. William Price Jr. told Bruce that his brother's pain during his last six months had been unrelenting.

"He bore his difficulties," Gurganus said, "with Job's own grace."