(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The story of the Mustians that Price initiated in A Long and Happy Life is also the focus in A Generous Man, his second novel. The cast of characters is not identical, but enough of them overlap that readers of the first novel will have a sense of identity with the main characters in the second.

The action of A Generous Man takes place nine years before the action of A Long and Happy Life. Wesley Beavers is not a part of the narrative because Rosacoke, now only eleven years old, has not yet met him. Milo, married and a father in A Long and Happy Life, is a fifteen-year-old boy in A Generous Man.

The book revolves around an unlikely event that imposes a light, sometimes hilarious tone upon a story that deals with matters of enduring importance with universal meaning. As the story opens, Milo Mustian, fifteen, has just lost his virginity to Lois Provo—a girl who, significantly, works with the snake show at the Warren County fair. Milo, waking the next morning, finds that the family dog, Phillip, is sick. In typical southern fashion, the whole family must go with Phillip to the veterinarian, a drunkard who quickly misdiagnoses Phillip’s ailment as rabies, although Rato, the retarded son, later discovers it is only worms.

His dire diagnosis does not cause the doctor to confine or destroy the dog. Rather, he provides a muzzle, and Phillip goes off to the fair with the family....

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

On the surface, this novel tells the story of Milo Mustian and his search for the snake Death, his retarded brother Rato Mustian, and Phillip, the family’s pet dog—all of whom are lost in the woods. The hunt, however, merely provides a vehicle for a greater search, the one Milo makes for his own manhood.

The novel opens simply, with Milo recovering from a night of debauchery at the Warren County fair. His evening included a sexual encounter with Lois Provo, a girl who works at a snake show at the fair. Milo awakens in the morning to find that the family dog, Phillip, is sick and that he must lead the Mustian family entourage to the veterinarian. He goes with Rato, his sister Rosacoke, and their grandfather, Papa, to meet the town veterinarian, a drunkard. Mistakenly identifying the dog’s problem as rabies, the veterinarian declares the dog mad.

At the veterinarian’s office, Milo meets his partner from the night before, Lois. The reader learns that she and her mother travel around with the carnival exhibiting their giant python, Death. They all meet back at the fair.

Phillip, the “mad” dog, has left the veterinarian’s wearing a muzzle. Rato removes it. At the fair, the dog, who hates snakes, meets Death, and a fight ensues. The dog chases the snake into the nearby woods, with Rato in close pursuit. What might seem only somewhat strange at this point becomes bizarre, as the plot changes from realism into a strange mythological tale. Price also mixes the tragic and the comic, with the ensuing search for the missing trio taking on slapstick tone. The hunt for Death and his pursuers becomes Milo’s road to self-discovery and, in general, a search for truth on the part of all the novel’s characters. Milo takes center stage in this hunt, as revelation after revelation slowly opens the young man’s eyes to the world. In essence, Milo comes to understand the nature of love. His one sexual encounter with Lois left him lusting for more, and this lust consumes his every...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Price, Reynolds. Learning a Trade: A Craftsman’s Notebooks, 1955-1997. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. Price’s notebooks offer a rare glimpse of the sometimes tortuous, often glorious creative process in which serious writers engage. Price shares the observations and feelings that led to the writing of A Generous Man and some of his other novels.

Price, Reynolds. “Narrative Hunger and Silent Witness: An Interview with Reynolds Price.” Interview by Susan Ketchin. The Georgia Review 47 (Fall, 1993): 522-542. This interview focuses on Price’s religious beliefs and how his convictions influence his writing. Although he is sometimes regarded as a Christian writer, he tries to convey a nonjudgmental vision of the world and thus believes that this label is inappropriate.

Schiff, James, A., ed. Critical Essays on Reynolds Price. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998. This outstanding collection of critical essays from major literary figures and scholars, reviews, and previously unpublished material offers an in-depth view of Price’s work. Includes pieces on A Generous Man.

Schiff, James, A. Understanding Reynolds Price. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. Schiff offers an astute analysis of Price’s essays, memoirs, poetry, drama, and biblical interpretations. An excellent source for understanding the whole spectrum of Price’s work, Schiff’s book features essays on individual novels, including A Generous Man.