cover image NOBLE NORFLEET


Reynolds Price, John Wiley, . . Scribner, $26 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-7432-0417-0

Price (Kate Vaiden; Roxanna Slade; etc.) takes the Southern gothic genre out for one more shaky spin in his latest novel. On the same night that 17-year-old Noble Norfleet loses his virginity to his Spanish teacher, his crazy mother puts an ice pick through the hearts of his two younger siblings and flees town. The time is the late '60s, and the place is semi-rural North Carolina, with all its racial baggage. Noble's father has long deserted the family, leaving Noble with no one to depend on but Hesta James, the Norfleet's loyal old black maid. As Noble puts it, "I was now entirely alone on Earth, except for the friendship Hesta provided and the parts of Nita Acheson's body that I'd been rubbing against me like drugs." His doomed affair with Nita, his married teacher, presages the nature of much of his future love life. After his mother is found and arrested, he turns for solace to a fellatio-obsessed clergyman, Tom Landingham, then joins the army when Tom commits suicide, going to Vietnam as a medic. Back in the States, he becomes a nurse and meets the lovely, well-brought-up Fare Langston, who is nevertheless not a "prim stuck-up aristocrat." But things are not fated to work out with Fare, and Noble eventually discovers that you can go home again, with some mental breakdowns along the way, as the narrative winds back to his mother's release from an asylum for the criminally insane. This accumulation of cliché types and situations (the loyal, long-suffering black servant, the Viet vet freakout), served up in the faux folksy voice Price has contrived for his narrator, makes this one of his lesser efforts. (June 18)

Forecast:The prolific and much-beloved Price can easily weather a shortfall or two; his sales should remain steady.