A Long and Happy Life

by Reynolds Price
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 775

Few authors have the good fortune to have a whole issue of a major, high-circulation magazine devoted to the publication of their first novel at about the time the hardcover edition is released. Such fortune was Price’s, however, when Harper’s published A Long and Happy Life in its April, 1962, issue. The book went on to win a William Faulkner Foundation Award for a first novel, and the critical reception of this first book was singularly favorable.

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A Long and Happy Life presents Rosacoke Mustian to the reading public, as well as her erstwhile boyfriend, Wesley Beavers, who gets the innocent girl pregnant. Although he condescends to marry her, he then pretty much leaves her on her own. The book is alive with local color. In one of the early, most memorable scenes, Rosacoke needs to attend a funeral at a black church on a sizzling day in summer. Her friend Mildred Sutton has died in childbirth and is to be eulogized. Wesley Beavers drives his noisy motorcycle up to deliver Rosacoke to the funeral, but he does not go inside. Instead, he lingers outside and polishes his motorcycle, which is an extension of his being. Before the services are over, he leaves precipitously to get ready for the church picnic that he and Rosacoke are to attend that afternoon. As he screeches away from the church, he raises a trail of red dust behind him that one can almost taste, so vivid is Price’s description.

The book is divided into three long chapters, each with appropriate subdivisions. The action takes place between July and Christmas, and each section marks a visit from Wesley, who three times comes the 130 miles from the naval base in Norfolk to see Rosacoke, his girlfriend. They have known each other for six years. Rosacoke is now twenty, Wesley twenty-two. Wesley is sexually experienced; Rosacoke is not.

Price supplies necessary details unobtrusively, partly through Rosacoke’s interior monologues, partly through the letters she exchanges with Wesley, and partly through flashbacks, most of them part of her interior monologues. He also introduces his readers to an amusing, warm-hearted cast of small-town characters who are far removed from the world outside their own community.

At the church picnic, Wesley tries to seduce Rosacoke, but she resists his advances. It is not until his next visit in November that he succeeds in deflowering Rosacoke, for whom the sexual experience is especially threatening because the death of her friend Mildred is still in the forefront of her mind. Rosacoke realizes that her long and happy life could be cut short by a pregnancy if it were to be a difficult one.

Death is very much a part of the novel. Rosacoke’s brother, Milo, suffers the loss of his first child, a baby meant to carry on the family name, but who, dying at birth, takes the name Horatio Mustian III to the grave with him. Mildred’s baby, Sledge, has survived, and Rosacoke visits him, doing her duty and being calmed by her visits, although they constantly remind her of what could happen to her, because she soon knows that Wesley’s child is growing within her.

Through a series of mischances, Rosacoke is forced to play the Virgin Mary in the annual Christmas pageant that her mother is directing at the Delight Baptist Church. The baby Jesus is an overgrown eight-month-old child, Frederick Gupton, who has been drugged with paregoric so that he will not disrupt the pageant. Rosacoke realizes what her lot will be with Wesley, but she comes to an acceptance of it, partly through her participation in the pageant.

Price chose his microcosm well and constructed it with an authenticity that gained the respect of most of the critics. His dialogue is easy and believable. His humor is irrepressible, as in the scene in which Uncle Simon misplaces his false teeth at the church picnic and in the scene in which the preacher who can walk on water sinks.

The isolation of his characters from the world, being drawn as they are into the social and religious web of their own community, encapsulates them and insulates them from outside influences. Some outside influences—although not very desirable ones—intrude upon the story by means of Wesley’s periodic visits.

Within the limited confines in which he works, Price has been able to find universal significance in his characters and has been able to deal intricately with questions of life and death, with the dream of a long and happy life, and with the fact of quick death for infants and other relatively young people within the story.

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