cover image The Promise of Rest

The Promise of Rest

Reynolds Price. Scribner Book Company, $23.5 (353pp) ISBN 978-0-684-80149-0

This dark, haunting successor to The Surface of Earth and The Source of Light adds a contemporary chapter to the tormented Mayfield family's 90-year saga. Wade Mayfield, great-grandson of the woman whose runaway marriage in 1903 set the family's tragic 20th-century history in motion, is dying of AIDS. Long estranged from his parents (his black lover, Wyatt Bondurant, hated them as complicit beneficiaries of the South's racist past), Wade comes home to North Carolina in April 1993, after Wyatt's death. His mother, Ann, has left his father, Hutchins, claiming that her husband has shut her out of his life for years. Meanwhile, Hutchins's lifelong friend and onetime lover, Strawson Stuart, makes his own reproaches about Hutchins's inability to fully accept love. Extended family and friends gather around the dying Wade, grappling with matters as general as America's poisoned racial heritage and as intimate as the Mayfield legacy: ``burning what they called love as their treacherous, always vanishing fuel when what they craved was merely time; more time above ground anyhow to feed their dry unquenchable sovereign hearts.'' Price's characters are fierce people who know the damage they have caused and don't presume to think they can redress it. Yet a deep religious sentiment permeates the novel, holding out the promise of rest for Wade and anyone else who can learn to accept life whole, with all its splendor and cruelty. The book closes, like its predecessors, with the family wedding ring passing into new hands that may put it to healing use. Price's prose-distinctively Southern yet uniquely his own, with its ring of North Carolina's brisk cadences and his characters' flinty personalities-provides just the right vehicle for his passionate, unsentimental consideration of American life as seen through its truest prism: the family. A crowning achievement in the career of one of our finest writers. (May)