With each passing year, and thus with each new book, Reynolds Price’s body of work becomes ever more distinguished. Although this latest effort has been severely criticized by reviewers—indeed, the narrative in this novel is somewhat grim, making it one of Price’s darkest works—Price’s style, his unique voice and compelling morality, redeem Blue Calhoun, the story and the character.
Lest any mistake be made about just whose story is being told, Price turns his tale over to the eponymous narrator, who at the beginning of this tale has all the trappings of a happy life: a fine, Catholic wife, an adoring and beautiful daughter, a wise, if crusty, mother, and a good job. Blue sells instruments in music-loving Raleigh, North Carolina. He is a reformed alcoholic whose daughter shamed him into abandoning the bottle and pills. Asked to leave Davidson College after only one year, he is a soldier home from the war where he killed men, not quite with the same reckless or unthinking determination that had characterized his own dissolute descent into addiction. All in all, as he says, the year between the Aprils of 1956 and 1957 were preceded by a time that “starts with the happiest I ever was, though it brought down suffering on everybody near me.” Furthermore, “that one year was built like a story, whoever built it. It had a low start that stoked up fast to such a heat that hinges on doors were melting away; and pent up people were tearing loose and running for what looked like daylight till, at some weird invisible signal, everything started cooling again.”
Blue is given to such hyperbole, but considering the circumstances of that year, perhaps he is justified in believing that fate marked him and his for a dark reckoning that is easier explained in such poetic, idiosyncratic language. Blue is a great talker, a great explainer. In this long epistle to his granddaughter, he can be forgiven if he exaggerates in order to escape the blunt truth. Such white-hot honesty burns in the memory.
On that day in 1956, an old school friend, Rita Absher, walks into the music store to buy an autoharp for her daughter. Even at sixteen, Luna, as beautiful and bright as her namesake, is every bit as beguiling and mysterious as the moon. Characteristic of Price’s mastery of dialogue that crackles with hidden meaning while getting to the bare bones of truth is this first encounter with Rita and her child, Luna:
That instant a stock boy passed, bumped me and said “Old Blue.”
Rita said “Blue?”
I held in place.
“Not Blue Calhoun?”
I nodded and grinned. “—His cold remains.”
She stood a second, then made a little graceful skip and a glide, then took my hands. “If you’re cold, child, then cool my skin.”
Such elliptical but entirely understandable phrases are characteristic of Blue’s recollections of events. He is writing this memoir many years later, and if the characters all tend to share his quirkiness of expression, it is because they speak with Blue’s voice, one that he acquired naturally from his mother, whose matter-of-fact aphorisms are as piercing as they are original. Given Blue’s manner of speech and thought, Luna’s symbolic nature—child, daughter, woman, lover—is readily apparent. She is, in short, a dangerous but wholly desirable taboo. Blue Calhoun is an addict, although a reformed one, and Luna is every bit as potent and appealing as any drug: “[D]on’t let any expert try to tell you that sweet warm bodies are any less of a maddog craving than all the liquor east of the Rockies or mainline coke.”
In short order, he is lost, willing to give up wife, daughter, and home for the chance at another life, a new life with Luna. She is no ordinary girl, having suffered hideous abuse as a child and, consequently, all the more prone to accept Blue precisely because he is an older man and is kind to her. For the rest of that year—twelve months that take up the largest part of this story—Blue learns that his angel-child is also a girl-woman, blessed with sexual knowledge well beyond her years but with all the dreams and high-school ambitions of any other eleventh grader. Hating his guilt even as he is lying to his wife and deceiving his child, he is unrepentant; perhaps only his mother, whom he cavalierly calls Miss Ashlyn, knows the moral turmoil that this obsession stirs in his soul. Yet she is not entirely sympathetic: Moral quandaries are so many Gordian knots; if insoluble, they are to be cut to clear the way to proper conduct.
Blue is surrounded by such women of character. His mother is sharp-tongued and the very pillar of rectitude, blessed with “an absolute certainty of right and wrong.” His wife, Myra, is pious to a fault; so patient and...
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