The Magazine

Himself When Young

An American novelist on his formative years at Oxford.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Price's first full-length tale, a North Carolina country story called A Long and Happy Life, began to take shape at Oxford, even as he labored at his thesis on "Samson Agonistes." Price felt a growing consciousness, even at a distance of thousands of miles, of the personal legacy of folk speech and storytelling of his native eastern North Carolina, the land of his people for generations. The iconic opening paragraph of his first novel, in its verbal agility, foreshadowed his success as a phrasemaker and teller of tales. It certainly sticks in the reader's ear:

Just with his body and from inside like a snake, leaning that black motorcycle side to side, cutting in and out of the slow line of cars .  .  . staring due-north through goggles toward Mount Moriah and switching coon tails in everybody's face was Wesley Beavers, and laid against his back like sleep, spraddle-legged on the sheepskin seat behind him was Rosacoke Mustian, who was maybe his girl. .  .  .

Once viewed, the rustic cyclist Wesley Beavers, weaving his way through a funeral procession with his pregnant girl clinging behind, is hard to forget.

Ardent Spirits is, then, a gallery of portraits and a chronicle of artistic self-discovery. It is also a strong contribution to the literature of sexual candor. Price, self-described as "a devoted disciple of physical beauty," evokes his sexual inclination with urbanity and honesty--nothing morbid or pathological about it. Homosexuality is today a topic rendered almost as banal with political contention as it was shrouded in bigotry and illegality 50 years ago; but Price, as usual, has fresh things to say. As a guardian of English, for instance, he is unhappy with the preemption of the useful adjective "gay."

Gay struck me at once as merely inaccurate if not seriously inappropriate. I saw none of us as especially carefree. .  .  . The degree to which it still seems to me a bad misnomer was clarified, above all, when the AIDS plague hit the nation. .  .  . Gay as a common label for homosexual identity became not only a cruel joke but also a political error at a time when federal money for research and treatment was desperately needed. The enemies of homosexuality were handed, gratis, a name which suited their contention that homosexuals were giddy irresponsibles.

This may be taken as a companioning sentiment to his trenchant protest, in one of his books of religious apologetics, against the fashionable "gender-neutral" designation of the godhead as possibly feminine, implicating women as it does in the woeful mischief of the divine will. In any case, Ardent Spirits is not "about" sexuality. It is about love and friendship in their broad, particular reaches.

Price writes also about his first three years as an apprentice instructor at Duke, where he is now James B. Duke Professor of English. During those years he published his first significant fiction. He has since published some 37 volumes of fiction, memoirs, poetry, biblical translation, and criticism--all of it attesting to the variety and durability of his talent. If his readers are lucky, Ardent Spirits will certainly not be the last.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. wrote about Oxford in his own memoir, Telling Others What to Think: Recollections of a Pundit.