REYNOLDS PRICE DEVELOPED CANCER --- an "infiltrating tumor" --- in his spinal column starting in the spring of 1984. It forced him into radiation therapy and through a lengthy series of operations.
Before it had been brought into remission, he had lost most of the use of his body, and ended up in a wheelchair, with --- he reports --- constant pain and depression. A Whole New Life is the tale of his partial recovery --- one which took over four years.
The book takes us through the crucial first years, including a most important discovery: how Price was able to rid himself of the pain that had made his new life so wretched. He had tried all the drugs, including methadone (he calls it "the doctors' heroin"), and despaired of ever being pain-free again. In one last effort, through the Duke University Pain Center, he came up with an unexpected answer:
Within [a] limited stretch of biofeedback and hypnosis, no more than eight weeks, I'd grown essentially free from pain. Not free from its constant presence in my body --- it roars on still, round the clock every day, in my back and legs and across my shoulders --- but free from any real notice of it or concern for its presence, not to speak of the dread and the idiot regime it forced upon me through three long years.
At one point early on in his sickness, Price regressed in time --- going back some 2,000 years to visit with Jesus Christ. During his radiation treatment (he took the maximum acceptable lifetime limit), he finds himself on the Lake of Kinnereth, in the north of Israel. He sees thirteen sleeping men. One rises and comes towards him, leads him towards the lake:
Jesus silently took up handfuls of water and poured them over my head and back til water ran down my puckered scar. Then he spoke once --- 'Your sins are forgiven' --- and turned to shore again, done with me.
Price asks himself whether it was a dream or a vision, and finally decides that --- no matter which --- it was a gift, "an alternative time and space in which to live through a crucial act..."
§ § §
At the end of the book, he offers advice to those who are inadvertently starting out on the road of cancer, paraplegia, and pain. It's simple --- leave your old self behind:
Your chance of rescue from any despair lies, if it lies anywhere, in your eventual decision to abandon the deathwatch by the corpse of your old self and to search our a new inhabitable body.
Reynolds says the old habits, the old friends --- even family and the place where one lives --- should be abandoned or changed as soon as possible after trauma. Since we are now new people, we must find a new life.
Despite all this, A Whole New Life is a maudlin failure. One does not have to demean Price's real suffering to say that the work feels like something he whipped off and got to his agent in a hurry so he wouldn't miss out on his monthly royalty check.
Price is a "professional" East Coast writer --- with all that it means: the adoration of the establishment in the literary hothouse of New York; a National Book Critics Circle Award; a gusher of books (some twenty-six so far --- plus essays and poems).
Further, to make sure that we don't miss the point concerning his role in Literary America, he drops the names of his many friends in the Write-Biz: Caroline Kizer, William Styron, Stephen Spender, Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison. (He even manages to sneak in James Agee --- "a distant cousin.")
But Price himself --- no matter how many artists he knows --- is not really a writer, certainly not an artist. He certainly knows how to put words on paper, in profusion, but, he is, in truth, engaged in the sausage business. He grinds out the stuff, ties it off with a bit of string, and sends it out to the world. Tolstoi or Nabokov or Singer (or Shakespeare, for that matter) could and did pull off such a flood of writings: Price doesn't have the write stuff.
Part of it is that something is missing in all this, something very important: probably his heart. Listen to this description of the departure of Dan, a young man who stayed with him through the early stages of the cancer --- through all the sickness, through the throwing up, the awful moods, the terrible drugs, the dreams of suicide:
I felt a real sadness at watching him go. His undownable presence through seventeen months had literally carried my life across a bridge I might well not have crossed alone or with anyone else then known to me. We'd built a haphazard friendship between us that, now I could see, ran tall and deep. But I also shared some of the relief Dan must have felt in going on, a new sense of cleared space and fresh unpredictable air around me. For a short while to come, he and I would be friends whose faces summoned the memory of dire times. Meanwhile, we'd correspond about our work.
If I were poor old Dan, I'd be wanting to pop Price in the kisser for doling out such tired words after what I had put up with. There are powerful ways of describing friendship, and friendship lost --- but Price's wan sentiments cheat him (and the rest of us) of a sense of true caring.
Then there's Price's poetry, which he insists on salting around A Whole New Life like dogshit on the morning lawn. It comes off as something that you and I would scrawl in Miss Deacon's 11th Grade English class:
Splayed face-down on the last pool of sleep,
I'm gaffed by caw-caw from one distant crow.
What Roman would rise to face this day?
Half an hour later I loom at the pond window,
Glum while my two globes of barnyard cholesterol
Gurgle behind me in salt-free fat...
Caw? Gaffed? Barnyard cholesterol gurgling? At first I thought that the writer was playing it for a laugh, but, after slogging through the whole of A Whole New Life --- at the price of my sanity --- I know now a comedian he's not. Nor a poet.
I suspect the real problem is haste. Those who write quickly, with the confidence of their own invulnerability, often write sloppily. We get nothing but a gaggle of bad prose, bad poetry, and bad research. He states, for example, that in 1984, he was not able to find any disabled literature to help him figure out the course of his life:
When I finally recovered the will to read and searched around me for any book, essay or sentence that might speak directly to the hole I was in...[I looked for] anything more useful than crackpot guides to healing or death, impossibly complex starvation diets, alfalfa pills and karmic tune-ups.
Not content with mocking those who have found some comfort if not help in natural foods and eastern religions, he goes on to state that there was nothing of "...useful instruction in how to absorb the staggering but not-quite-lethal blow of a fist that ends your former life...offers you nothing by way of a new life that you can begin to think of wanting, though you clearly have to go on feeding your gimped-up body and roofing the space above your bed."
In one brief paragraph, Price has kissed off Ron Kovic, Patrick Segal, Richard Brickner, Jonathan Nasaw --- not to mention Christy Brown, Jane Addams, Helen Keller, even Shakespeare's astonishing Richard III.
§ § §
Should we err on the side of kindness when dealing with one who has gone through as much as Price (that is to say, as much as the rest of us)? Perhaps --- but for many of us, his words create a fog of self-pity, at the same time demeaning others of us who have gone down the same road. "I am the only one who's gotten here, and I worked harder than anyone to do that," he's saying, blotting out dozens of great and sensitive writers who came before.
A Whole New Life has a few moments --- but it's mostly a 213 page slough --- ending not with a sigh, but with a whine.