The Promise of Rest

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Promise of Rest, the third novel in Reynolds Price’s trilogy of the Mayfield family, follows The Surface of Earth (1975) and The Source of Light (1981). The complete trilogy, A Great Circle, traces the odyssey of the Mayfield family through nine generations in the North Carolina and Virginia Piedmont. The Promise of Rest continues the story of Hutchins Mayfield, now an accomplished poet and professor at Duke University. Hutchins is estranged from his wife, Ann, who recently left after forty years of marriage to begin a life as a legal secretary, but he is still in touch with friends and relatives in his rural homestead, including his 101-year-old black cousin Grainger Walters, a patriarchal figure.

Besides Ann’s departure, the other great loss in Hutchins’ life has been his estrangement from his son Wade, an architect in New York. Wade’s companion, Wyatt Bon- durant, is a young African American book designer who is openly hostile to white southerners, especially Hutchins and Ann, and deeply possessive of Wade. Unfortunately, Wyatt contracted AIDS and shot himself after he discovered that he had infected Wade as well. For the past six months, Wade has been languishing in a New York apartment as his condition worsens—blind, unable to work, and cared for by Ivory Bondurant, Wyatt’s sister. Wade has refused all communication with his parents and has not opened their letters. Fearing the worst, his parents are worried about his condition but cannot help him. Wyatt had made it clear to Wade that he would have to choose between him and his parents, and Wade has continued to shun his parents out of loyalty to his dead friend. Wyatt’s spirit seems to hover over Wade, even on his deathbed, like Heathcliff haunting Catherine in Wuthering Heights (1847). The novel is divided into three sections—“Bound Home,” “Home,” and “Bound Away”—which recount Wade’s return home to die.

One of the most emotionally compelling of Price’s novels, The Promise of Rest explores the complex issue of AIDS and the enormous moral, medical, and psychological demands it places on friends and family. Hutch is forced to confront the pain of his estrangement from Wade at Grainger’s birthday party, when Grainger hands him the telephone and invites him to speak with his son. Hutch has been unable to forgive Ann for leaving him, and their shared parental responsibility for Wade has sharpened their conflict.

When Wade’s parents learn of his deteriorating condition, Hutch’s old friend Strawson Stuart urges him to drive to New York and bring Wade home. There they meet Ivory Bondurant and Jimmy Boat, who have been caring for Wade. Boat, a short, wrinkled man of deep faith, is a particularly appealing character, an angel of mercy who has nursed twenty-three dying AIDS patients.

The Promise of Rest is Price’s frankest treatment of homoerotic love, an issue hinted at in previous novels. He examines the moral and psychological pressures generated by AIDS within the gay community and the range of responses, from the carpe diem irresponsibility of young Maitland Moses to the generous care offered by Boat. The homoerotic theme is foreshadowed early in the novel with Hutch’s seminar discussion of John Milton’s pastoral elegy “Lycidas” (1638), dedicated to the poet’s friend Edward King, who drowned at sea. Most important, Hutch is forced to confront the unresolved issue of his attraction to his friend and former student Strawson, whose affection Hutch could not fully reciprocate. It is suggested that Hutch’s unresolved bisexual impulses have contributed to the failure of his marriage. In a bitter telephone exchange, Ann accuses Hutch of caring more for Strawson than for her but not having the courage to act on his feelings. She rebukes him for marrying her when he loved Strawson more.

Eros serves as the dominant force in the novel, and the characters’ discussions of the varieties of love are reminiscent of Plato’s Symposium. Here, as in his previous novels, Price makes extensive use of the epistolary form, with letters from each of the main characters used to fill in details of past relationships. The reader will also find here the clever, witty dialogue and repartee, the verbal sparring and posturing, that are typical of Price’s style.

The impact of Wade’s slow death at home from AIDS constitutes the moral and emotional focus of the novel. Hutch must restructure his life to provide the continuous nursing care that Wade requires,...

(The entire section is 1878 words.)