A Novelist's `Front Porch' World

IN the South of novelist Reynolds Price, where humor, scandal, and dignity sit alongside each other like family members passing time on a front porch, you can get nostalgic for a life you may never have even had.

The Carolina author's stories are rooted in a familial archaeology most readers fondly recognize but few experience anymore.

Apparently even fewer still will be writing about it, if Mr. Price's experience is any indication.

"I sometimes work an experiment with my students and say, `Does any one of you know the maiden name of either of your grandmothers?' " says the author, who teaches English at Duke University here. "And I almost never find one who does."

And when he asks students to write about the kinds of emotional situations that interest and affect them most, Price says, "I find that they almost never choose to write about anything that has to do with family.... It's never a theme anymore."

Those times, so richly detailed in Price's own work, when a child lays his head on his mother's lap to learn the family folklore, are being abandoned in the breakup of families and the "death grip" of television, he observes.

The Monitor interviewed Price just before the publication of "Blue Calhoun," his new novel about a man's struggle to reconcile his conflicting love for his family and his obsession with a young girl.

Price sat in his living room here before a wall crammed with a gallery of people and places near and dear - that network of roots that is key to his stories.

In a wide-ranging discussion, he touched on everything from his students' writing (dulled by television, he says) to his own writing (more productive now than before cancer surgery left him in a wheelchair in 1984).

"Blue Calhoun," like so many of his stories, is grounded in the 1950s and the sense of hope characteristic of that period. Though it deals with the themes of child abuse, infidelity, alcoholism, and the suffering the title character causes himself and his loved ones, there still is a sense of forgiveness and redemption on this "good earth," a term Price uses often.

Price considers the new book to be a companion piece to his 1986 novel, "Kate Vaiden," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The title character of that novel was modeled partly after his mother and her eccentricities, and the story was told in a woman's voice.

Both Kate and Blue were born in the 1920s and shared the Depression, World War II, and the South through the civil-rights movement.

Kate, an independent woman who would leave town to clean her slate, and Blue, who had similar problems dealing with life's complications, are what he calls "secret outlaws."

"They're both the kind of person that fascinated and entranced me in my childhood - the sort of person who lives a life that is apparently reasonably conventional, but in fact they're having an emotional life that is in some ways reckless and in some ways daring and even forbidden. And they both pay quite extensively for their outlaw natures."

With a hearty laugh that brings tears to his eyes, he says, "I think we all like to read about outlaws more than we like to read about in-laws."

Just as in some literature, a sense of danger or evil can lurk around corners, in Price's writing there is a constant sense of the underlying goodness of characters. This may have something to do with his coming of age in the 1950s.

"There was a certain survival of American innocence, a certain sense of almost infinite possibility in the 1950s," he recalls.

"It's been fashionable for years in America to think of the '50s as some kind of terribly dull repressed time in our national lives. I was having a marvelous time, I had no sense of being repressed whatever."

INDEED, in his stern appraisal of the quality of students filling his writing classes today, Price implies that the present is not as rich as the 1950s for aspiring writers.

"Their minds are very dull.... The thousands of hours they've logged in front of television sets constitute perhaps the largest single handicap they have as human beings," he says bluntly of the students he gets at Duke.

Asked to write stories, he says, "They write fantasy, not in the fairy-tale sense but simply stories made up on what is their universal model for narrative, which is television.

"And I constantly tell them that to break the death grip on their heads. The minute I say to them, `Everybody in this class is writing a Monday night NBC movie,' they know exactly what I mean."

But, Price hurries to note, "I don't see the novel collapsing as a very major form of literature. There are always marvelous exceptions to any social observation."

"One of the wonderful things I've seen is talented, intelligent young women succeeding far more often than they used to," says Price.

He recalls an older faculty colleague advising him 34 years ago not to invest much hope in gifted young women writers, because they get side-tracked by marriage and children.

"Well," Price shrugs, "he wasn't being prejudiced; he was being realistic at that point in the late 1950s."

Yet, he adds, "The first [woman] I ever taught was in the first class I ever taught - Anne Tyler."

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