THE GOOD PRIEST'S SON *
By Reynolds Price. Scribner. 278 pp. $26
Reynolds Price's 14th novel distills to the essentials the major themes that have beset and ravished him over his long and productive career. Price, 72, is the author of 36 books, which include two fictional family trilogies, poetry, biblical interpretation and the 1994 memoir (A Whole New Life) of the ordeal with spinal cancer that left him using a wheelchair.
The Good Priest's Son is the chronicle of one man's hope for salvage when everything in his world -- including his own body -- is collapsing. Though the novel throbs with that old Ash Wednesday reminder -- "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" -- it is counterbalanced by the melodies of Price's fine ear for dialogue and his vividly depicted scenes, both in a blasted lower Manhattan in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, and in the guilt-ridden Southern hamlet where a stern but beloved father lies stricken.
At the novel's beginning, Mabry Kincaid, a 53-year-old art conservator, is flying home to New York from Paris with a little painting that might conceal a Van Gogh sketch. Suddenly, the plane tilts steeply northward. The pilot announces that the twin towers have fallen, all U.S. airports are closed, and the plane is being diverted to Nova Scotia.
Because Mabry's loft near Ground Zero is off-limits, he travels from Nova Scotia to North Carolina to visit his octogenarian father, a revered Episcopal priest who has been injured in a fall and is being cared for by Audrey Thornton, an African American divinity student, and her son, Marcus, an ambitious painter.
Up in Nova Scotia, Mabry has made a guilty inventory of his losses and failures: His wife, on whom he cheated, has just died of cancer and left him a small fortune; he's on the outs with his daughter; he's having blind spells and odd twinges in his limbs; his home town of New York has been "assaulted by Allah" and his loft made uninhabitable. He's stanching wounds even before he crosses his father's threshold, and the trio awaiting him at the old homestead have edges you could cut yourself on. The formidable Audrey has already scolded Mabry long-distance for not calling his father sooner to let him know he was safe. Father Tasker Kincaid, in his new wheelchair, addresses his son as "Darling Jackass" and "Pitiful Hotdog." He's soon taking Mabry to task for cheating on his wife, neglecting his daughter and living in New York.
Meanwhile, Audrey's son, Marcus, waits up for Mabry in dark rooms and veers between prickly attitude and open-hearted pleas for Mabry to be his mentor and friend. Audrey, who due to an "ancient error" may well be a blood relation of the Kincaids, is not only beautiful and a gourmet cook, but she also converses with Father Kincaid at mealtimes in New Testament Greek before she undresses the old man and puts him to bed. Just what is the relationship here? the son has to wonder.
Redemption in The Good Priest's Son comes in slow and painful increments. Father Kincaid asks his startled son to hear his confession and then drive him to the grave of Mabry's younger brother, killed at 18 in a shooting accident. After his combat duty in the front lines of family life, Mabry's return to his stricken New York reads with the uncanny hush of a pastorale. Manhattan's inhabitants move in a deliberate, kindly dance, sifting through the wreckage, touched by the miracle of finding themselves able to help fellow survivors. Some things won't go away, including Mabry's illness, but he and the stern good priest will be vouchsafed one more go-round, which will result in a rapport powerful enough to transform lives closely connected to theirs. *
Gail Godwin's 12th novel, "Queen of the Underworld," will be published in January 2006 simultaneously with "The Making of a Writer," a journal memoir.