The Foreseeable Future
Reynolds Price is wary of labels, especially the ones naming him exclusively a “Southern” writer. He would probably be just as uneasy with the description “novelist,” for he is also a poet, an essayist, a playwright, a screenwriter, a professor, and a translator. He is a true man of letters for whom literature in its various guises offers the opportunity to assume the camouflage of form. For the occasion of his latest work, The Foreseeable Future, he assumes the mufti of a short-story writer, but, untrue to form, his stories are not “short”; nor are they long enough to be novellas. They are masterfully written odysseys that require just enough exploration to bring the characters “home,” to force them to a reckoning with the future. They are also Southern in locale (all three set in North Carolina), Southern in certain eccentricities of speech and character, and Southern in sensitivity to time and place, but they are non-Southern in the universality of their concerns, in the interior peregrinations of their protagonists, and in the quiet resolution with which each pilgrim concludes his progress.
In “The Fare to the Moon,” Kayes Paschal prepares to be drafted into the Army during World War II. It is an obligation he could possibly avoid by pleading that he is sole support for a wife and son. He has, however, already left his wife and son for the black woman he loves. In fact, his leaving places her in some jeopardy from the local rabble. Kayes and the other characters in this story define themselves in how they speak, in what they say. He and his brother, wife, and son all speak directly and honestly. Each, especially his mistress Leah, is dependent in some way on Kayes’s decision to go for his draft physical, and each reveals in his or her own voice how this one good man’s absence lessens life, makes it somehow more frightening.
Remarkably, in such a “brief” long story, Price creates whole characters, puts them in mild conflict, and resolves the situation with a lovely dream tale in which Curt, Kayes’s son, can mourn his father’s leaving. The language is spare, especially the lean, direct dialogue between the two brothers, both strong, rural men. It is a combination of poetic intensity and folk wisdom, especially in its more colloquial passages, as when Leah hears her mother described: “Your mama would crawl to the moon for a sound—music in her bones.” A young boy precedes Kayes into the induction center; he “took the lead with all the joy of a Judas goat at the slaughter pen.” The meeting between Leah and Curt is for him painful but necessary, a chance to face the “clean dead-level eye-to-eye truth,” a truth that also comes to Kayes from a strange source, a former schoolmate, who delivers it in a surprise “as unlikely as an angel visit.” Riley Paschal tries to suggest a way for his brother to avoid the service: “You used to have your old heart murmur. What happened to that?” Kayes is ironic in his blunt reply: “My heart ain’t spoke for years.”
As soon as he has said it, he knows he is lying, and such is the power of Price’s writing, where plot is almost incidental, that the reader knows it as well. Kayes loves all these people, even the wife he left for the more powerful, more passionate relationship that ties him solidly to the one place on earth where he can be whole and happy. Hitler and the “wide Pacific” are before him; “the people he crushed” behind. Yet in leaving them all he realizes that his desertion of them for Leah’s “deep and steady” love was as necessary as breathing, the only completeness one man can find “this side of death.”
In the title story, Whit Wade is a man returning from the dead. Resuscitated on a World War II battlefield, he cannot let go of the feeling that he is somehow not thoroughly alive. He sees himself as a sort of reversed revenant, returned in body but not spirit, a man who has to learn all over again how to live. Evidence that he is indeed alive greets him every morning. His wife and daughter are made of flesh and blood and with love to spare, but he is so haunted by death, his own and his companions’ in battle, that he moves around them like a ghost. Symbolically, he is a claims adjustor for an insurance company and must travel for a week settling disputes, accepting or denying claims, and getting at the truth about the accidents for which men and women seek compensation. He sees himself in some ways as a victim, too, of an act of God, for which he wants to be reimbursed with understanding and a new life.
Price says that “Whit was used to God’s silence,” however, and he knows that he will not have two chances at dying without salvation. He believes that he has done as much as a man can by providing his family with “a stout dry house where women could face the night with no dread.” Somehow, what he is expected to do is not enough. The war, his wounds, have robbed him of any reason to continue to do it.
His journey along the byways of North Carolina becomes an epic quest, an everyman’s voyage to find a grail of self- knowledge, an elixir of life. The cupbearers are an eccentric, plain lot. Hungry and looking for a place...
(The entire section is 2133 words.)