There are many reasons to recommend Reynolds Price’s 1962 debut novel, A Long and Happy Life, and most of them have to do with the way that Price makes his characters and their situation real and convincing. The world that surrounds the book’s protagonist, Rosacoke Mustian, is vivid, rich, and varied, so much so that, as in the real world, there are issues and actions that can never be fully understood. It starts with a mystery—who is the father of Mildred Sutton’s baby?—and continues to drop one open-ended suggestion after another. Who is the younger boy in the photo of Rosacoke’s father, and what is he shouting? What happens between Milo, Wesley, and Willie Duke beneath the surface of Mason’s Lake, that the men would carry her back to the shore “like a sack of dry meal” and then would race back to swim the whole lake twice? Where does Rosacoke work? Like life, the novel offers glimpses of things that an observer might hope to find out more about but that, as often or not, are left to sheer guesswork.
This effect is, of course, achieved by omission. Price raises issues, implies things, that he never follows through on. The credit he deserves is due to how difficult a feat this is. There is a constant struggle in any piece of fiction between the writer’s attempt to imitate the world’s unevenness and the possibility that a work that does in fact look too “real” will come out looking like a sloppy piece of writing. Handled well, as it is in A Long and Happy Life, the technique of leaving questions unanswered will leave readers with a sense of wonder. When handled poorly, as it is in the overwhelming majority of fiction that consciously tries to arouse curiosity, readers end up not feeling challenged or curious but only that the writer has done a poor job of proofreading the novel for continuity. That the right balance is achieved in this novel is commendable, especially in light of the fact that it is the writer’s first novel. Readers do not feel impatient about what they do not know, and they tend to have confidence that everything will have some relevance in the end.
Not all of the unresolved issues are of the same level of importance, of course. Some have answers that can be reasonably inferred by readers who are willing to take the time to think about the context for a moment. For instance, the actions beneath the lake’s surface already questioned here will fall into that category, as readers can guess, even without the specifics, that they are something fairly sexual. Other questions, such as Rosacoke’s job, may be curious, but they really do not have to be answered, even after Price has teased his audience by having Rosacoke’s mysterious, unnamed boss beg her to hurry back after she calls in sick. Another writer might be kind to his audience in such a case and satisfy their curiosity, but Price is secure enough to not feel pressured into giving information that is really not necessary for the story to go on. Still other mysteries, like the truth of the situation in the picture from 1915, seem central to the question of who the Mustians are. For the book to raise crucial issues like this and then abandon them might approximate the way that such unfinished pieces of information present themselves in real life, but they are nonetheless maddening to readers who are, after all, on a search for the deepest corners of their protagonist’s identity.
Perhaps the finest example of information that Price withholds from his readers, which another writer would spell out for them, is the question of what, exactly, might be in the poem that Rosacoke once wrote for the “What I Am Seeking in an Ideal Mate” contest. The book mentions this poem only once, with the explanation that it was “never sent in as it got out of hand.” The...
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