'Unchurchly' faith supports author Price

May 30, 1994|By Maude A. McDaniel | Maude A. McDaniel,Special to The Sun

"The tumor was pencil-thick and gray-colored, ten inches long from my neck-hair downward . . . intricately braided in the core of my spinal cord." It was cancerous and virtually inoperable at first. The stuff of late-night TV horror movies, it is the silent monstrous presence throughout this remarkable, un-'90s book.

It's remarkable because reading it is like walking into a raging storm of unbearable fear and pain, as Reynolds Price recounts almost stoically his struggle against physical and emotional disaster. After the first operation, and 25 sessions of radiation, he feels an inexorable paralysis creep up his body week by week, as the 5 percent chance cited by his radiologist becomes reality.

Within months, he has lost the use of his legs. In a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he is attended by concerned and loving friends, by many caring medical personnel, whom he learns to appreciate more as time goes on, and by some of the other kind, too. (His "frozen oncologist" has "all the visible concern of a steel cheese-grater.")

In the "actual eye of the storm . . . from the spring of 1984 till fall '88," Mr. Price moved from the first mindless denial of his plight into endless medical and psychological readjustment, including listening to music, drawing, praying. It also involved two more operations, "terrific -- almost comic! -- pain," and, finally, after years of "a narcotized life," blessedly effective pain control through biofeedback and hypnosis.

Through the "reinvention and reassembly" of a "radically altered" life, "trimmed for a whole new wind and route," he found "a markedly better way to live," with both public and private gains, including a flow of energy that has doubled his literary output. Since the onset of the cancer he has completed the prize-winning "Kate Vaiden" and written 12 other books. (This book includes seven "Relevant Poems" from the pivotal four years, which, like the book's prose, really cannot be critically assessed within the emotional context. "Even the handwriting is different. . . . It comes down the arm of a grateful man."

With a boy's relish and a man's shrug, he waxes politically incorrect about his new life: "A certified gimp, in working order, is often accorded an unearned awe which he may be forgiven for enjoying a moment till he rolls on past the nearest mirror and adjusts his vision for colder reality."

"A Whole New Life" is "un-'90s" because central to the story is Mr. Price's matter-of-fact account of "an actual happening" after his first operation. It's a happening in which Reynolds Price, sophisticated author of 26 books, playwright and winner of the William Faulkner Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, describes finding himself in the presence of Jesus Christ, his incision bathed, his sins forgiven, and a cure promised.

This is not '90s material. That would include Native American amulets, perhaps, or New Age crystals, or Far Eastern mantras, but surely not a mystic experience connected so closely to the white European religious heritage. I venture to guess that most reviews of the book will perhaps refer to it briefly and then pass by on the other side in embarrassment.

I have chosen to do otherwise because Mr. Price does. The experience -- along with another brief one in which his desperation ("How much more do I take?") is answered by a voice, "thoroughly real and near at hand," with the single word, "More" -- underlies everything else in the book. In the end, Mr. Price, whose "unchurchly Christianity" has long led him to belief in "an ultimately benign creator who notices his creatures," recommends that believers ask not "Why me?" but "What next?"

He refuses to ascribe specific meaning to his Jesus vision, praying, as before, only for "life as long as I have work to do, and work as long as I have life."

Mr. Price offers this small, powerful book "first to others in physical or psychic trials of their own, to their families and other helpers and then to the curious reader who waits for his or her own devastation." Those of us who have survived our own cancer experiences till now (to borrow his customary qualification) are most grateful.

Ms. McDaniel is a writer who lives in Cumberland.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "A Whole New Life"

Author: Reynolds Price

Publisher: Atheneum

Length, price: 213 pages, $20

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