Rules for Old Men Waiting
Rules for Old Men Waiting distinguishes itself as a rare first novel in a number of ways. Some of its more interesting distinctions include the age and pedigree of the book’s author, Peter Pouncey. The author was born in China to English parents and trained in the classics at English preparatory schools and Oxford; he became a professor of classics and a dean at Columbia University and then president of Amherst College. Sixty-seven years old by the time of the publication of Rules for Old Men Waiting, Pouncey worked on his slim novel for more than twenty years.
The narrative of Rules for Old Men Waiting follows a peculiar structure. The reader realizes almost immediately what the “waiting” in the title refers to: The protagonist, eighty-year old Scot Robert MacIver, terminally ill, recently a widower, is at the end of his long life and is waiting quietly for his death. Most of the narrative, however, does not concern MacIver in his twilight life but instead focuses largely on his reminiscences of times past. A significant portion of the novel is also given to a story of World War I constructed by MacIver as a means of passing the time during his last, lonely days.
MacIver is passing those last days at the house in the country that has always been his family’s rural escape. A “traditional cape house” that is “older than the Republic,” MacIver’s wife dubbed it “Night Heron House” in honor of a bird they once encountered. The MacIvers permanently move into Night Heron during the last months of Margaret’s battle with cancer, so that her last days will pass in the place she loves. With her death in early spring, MacIver is lost. In many ways the decaying house reflects the decline, fall, and decay of MacIver himself. The opening lines of the novel note that the “house and the old man were well matched, both large framed and failing fast.” In the days after Margaret’s death, MacIver considers the features of the house that need addressing: the roof, the siding on the windward side, the boiler, the gutters, and the porch. Just as MacIver “let the house go,” he also lets himself go. For months after Margaret’s death, he eats irregularly, does not keep up with housework, avoids the doctor, and spends most of his time sleeping. It is only when the porch collapses beneath him that he finally admits to himself, “I must retrench.” To make some sense of his last days, and to make them worthy of Margaret, MacIver realizes he must have some rules.
He must, he decides, “Keep personally clean,” make the bed daily and clean the house twice a week, and dress warmly; he must also “Eat regularly,” and “Play music and read.” Most important, he must “Work every morning.” MacIver is a historian and academic by training and vocation; his most important work was in interviewing and describing how the government mistreated veterans of World War I who were victims of mustard gas attacks.
Indeed, the notion of historyon both the personal and the global scaleis woven throughout the text. MacIver’s quest to do justice by the veterans of World War I comes into focus when one learns that his father died in the war. In a sense, then, his attempts to trace the histories of damaged veterans and tell their stories is also in some way an attempt to become closer to the father he lost as a small boy. Similarly, the structure of the novelthe frame set with the dying MacIver as he either remembers the past or fabricates a story in the tempestuous conflict of World War Ibefits a historian trying to create order in the wake of the chaos of everyday life.
Pouncey’s prose is at its best when MacIver is reveling in past glories and suffering under past sorrows; in his descriptions of his triumph as a Scottish rugby player who won the national game against England, in the details of his romancing of his wife, Margaret, and the pain each felt with the death of their son, David, who served as a medic during the Vietnam War, MacIver comes alive as a fiery Scot, too large for his garb as an American academic, quick to temper and to passion. In this way the reader truly understands the bitter and the sweet of looking back on a long life that has been fully lived. In MacIver’s present at Night Heron House, however, Pouncey does, upon occasion, tend to veer into the elegiac and wax perhaps a bit too poetically; similarly, his crafted World War I story lacks the immediacy and the vitality that MacIver’s own past contains.
The creation of a story...
(The entire section is 1860 words.)