There’s a Reynolds Price poem, “The Dream of Food,” that can be read as an elegantly compressed study for his 12th novel, Noble Norfleet. The poem attempts to convey the mysterious, ineffable relationship between a nursing mother and her baby. It takes place at that pivotal moment in prelingual consciousness when the mother is identified as the sole source of life-sustaining nourishment. A child stands in a doorway, driven by instinctive appetites, “hoarding a dim/Astonishment, unsure of having/Or wanting permission.” Wordlessly summoned to his mother’s breast, he suckles; when he has finished he rises to thank her, but before he can do so she presses him to her and urges: “Never leave.” Her plea is a tender acknowledgment of the reciprocal need at the heart of mother-child love, the template for all loves to follow. In order to survive and grow, the baby must consume the woman who gave him life. But the mother, just as surely, needs to be consumed. She and she alone can satisfy her child’s ravenous hunger. The look in his eyes as he drinks is more than just gratitude; it signifies the birth of adoration, and she knows that she will never be adored in quite the same way by anyone else.
Within these 59 lines one finds the poetic embryo of one of Noble Norfleet‘s lessons: To love is to submit to an inescapable cycle of devouring and being devoured. From the moment we meet the novel’s eponymous main character, he’s busy tangling eros with thanatos, ecstasy with entropy. “The first time I ever made real love with a another human being, I thought I’d die,” he begins his tale. “I didn’t feel guilty, just smothered in pleasure. That same night my family vanished from the face of the Earth so far as I knew.” The juxtaposition of those last two sentences connotes a dark, retributive causality: Perhaps if he hadn’t been out getting laid (or at the very least had felt a little more guilty about it) his family might not have vanished, and his domestic universe might have remained intact. Love, especially erotic love, will forever be freighted with morbid baggage for Noble, and his special burden will be to untangle the threads of his desires and fears, to satisfy his formidable hunger without wholly consuming the object of his affection.
Here Price has crafted a sort of gothic-in-reverse: An act of unspeakable horror is committed in the novel’s first few pages, and for the next 300 we witness how it ripples throughout the entire life of an individual, necessarily shaping his attitudes toward love, sex, sacrifice and duty. Instead of crescendoing toward a grim climax, Price front-loads the grotesquerie and then determinedly steps away from it to present a man struggling, over many years, to make some sense of it all. The morning after 17-year-old Noble loses his virginity to his high school Spanish teacher, he awakens to discover that his mentally ill mother has murdered his younger siblings in their sleep and taken off in the family’s ’59 Buick. (His drifter father has long since disappeared from his world.) When police in Maryland find the car abandoned on the beach in Ocean City, Noble makes the trip north from his home in North Carolina, accompanied by his guilt-wracked new lover, whose husband is off fighting in Vietnam and whose relationship with Noble is growing more untenable by the day.
Once he’s back home, Noble moves in with Hesta, his family’s former cook, who quickly takes to the role of surrogate mother. When his real mother re-emerges, frighteningly, he realizes that he must turn her over to police custody; in short order she’s sentenced to a facility for the criminally insane. Despondent and in search of solace, if not actual answers, Noble turns for guidance to a local man of the cloth, whose unconventional style of ministering involves the regular dispensing of blowjobs along with nuggets of practical and spiritual advice. Too distraught to suspect his own exploitation, Noble is just grateful to have someone paying attention to him, and more grateful still to think that, even in his pathetic state, he’s capable of making another soul happy. Though not homosexually inclined, he never recoils from these encounters, admitting that they occurred “at a point in my life when a little proof that I mattered even this much to some other human beyond old Hesta was no small matter.”
Noble is just beginning to reckon the complicated moral calculus of this new and not altogether unpleasant relationship when mortality makes yet another of its scheduled appearances, immediately launching him into adulthood. He volunteers for duty in Vietnam and serves as a medic, witnessing abomination after abomination. At one point, trapped in a pitch-black tunnel behind enemy lines, he has a vision of a beatific nurse blessed with miraculous healing powers. The moment is epiphanic. Upon his return from the war he resolves to become a nurse himself, “to ease pain and worry in other human beings,” and to redress through good works what he can’t help but see as a cosmic injustice: that as a child he was spared, while his brother and sister were savaged.
Price is often lauded for the lyricism with which he portrays the lives of ordinary men and women, but Noble’s history and psyche have conspired to illustrate that he’s no ordinary man. While he’s no sexual outlaw or outré provocateur either, he’s nevertheless trying to carve out his life in the interstices between gender roles. As a nurse he spends his days nurturing the sick and infirm, comforting them and lightening their burden, work traditionally associated with and assigned to women. His erotic self is even more fluid. Noble is the rare heterosexual male who is all but completely uninterested in the penetrative sexual act: He likes oral sex, and he longs to give, not receive. His early experiences with his Spanish teacher, who taught him that sex could be transcendent and at times even palliative, and with the reverend, who likened his secret ministrations to a form of “worship,” have stayed with him. The adult Noble is emotionally malnourished, starved for transcendent and worshipful sex, and his oral proclivities are a symptom. But the smart, caring, self-assured women he chooses to worship always seem to sense the bottomlessness of his hunger and retreat nervously, leaving him to subsist on the scraps offered by pornographic videos and his frequent visits to massage parlors.
A less thoughtful writer might have turned Noble Norfleet into a bathetic caricature or a sideshow freak, but Price has other ideas. In the author’s hands he is made into an unlikely angel of mercy. Noble’s world is the stuff of Greek tragedy; he’s got Medea for a mother, after all, and the other important figures in his life are always turning on him like mercurial, shape-shifting gods. But his outlook is decidedly Christian, albeit of the Blakean variety: sexual, empathic, informed by ecstatic visions and unbeholden to restrictive dogmas. Price formulates the sorrows and transgressions of the world–murder, abandonment, war, desolation, spiritual and sexual hunger–as a terrible machine through which Noble must be processed. Instead of being chopped up, though, he’s made stronger, and he emerges with a heightened capacity for understanding the pain of others and a divine gift for lessening it.
Near the end of the novel, Noble returns to the house of his youth, the site of his transformative horror, and resolves to live there the rest of his days with his mother, who has been released from her decades of confinement as she approaches the end of her life. The penultimate image in the book has the concentrated power of one of Price’s poems. A son and his mother are having breakfast early on a Sunday morning. Their roles, of course, have reversed; the child must now be the protector, feeder and caretaker. But everything about the scene, save for its placement in the story, suggests a beginning: the first meal of the day, the first day of the week, the first week of their new life together after so many years apart. In Noble Norfleet, Reynolds Price considers the questions of how we go about fulfilling our hunger for direction, for connectedness, for God, and comes up, fittingly, with a new testament of love, faith and forgiveness.