by Reynolds Price
Published by Scribner
307 pages, 2002
A Noble Doubt
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
The morning after he loses his virginity, 17-year-old Noble Norfleet awakens to a disturbing feeling: "the stillness bore in on me from all sides. The house was too quiet. A slow chill crawled up my legs and back." It takes him a while to pinpoint the source of his unease and when he does, the truth is far worse than he could have imagined: his sister and brother -- nine and 11, respectively -- have been killed in their sleep, an ice pick having stopped both little hearts. Noble's mother, Edith, has disappeared in the family car. His father had hit the road years before. Quite suddenly, Noble is without family and -- for a while at least -- is not even certain that he might not have done this terrible deed himself. And though Edith is eventually found and institutionalized, we are never entirely certain that our narrator -- young Noble -- is blameless.
Despite the book's violently themed beginning, Noble Norfleet is no one's idea of a crime novel. In fact, surprisingly little of the book is devoted to incidents around the terrible act. What we really deal with -- through three decades -- is the aftermath. Not long after the children are buried, Noble is taken under the wing -- and more -- of a local clergyman. When that relationship ends tragically, Noble -- just turned 18 -- enlists and then goes off to fight a medic's war in Vietnam. On his return he finds himself drawn to the healing arts and ends up training to be a registered nurse. The book moves from 1968 to the present with a deceptively placid real-time sort of feel. Little in the way of upheavals or even, after a time, genuine change. And thus our lives wind down.
Unreliable narrators have featured prominently in author Reynolds Price's work. Or rather, since he often has a narrator tell their own lives as seen through their own eyes, their observations can sometimes be interpreted as unreliable, simply because they're telling their own story. After all, no one can be objective about their own tale. This has never been more true for Price than in Noble Norfleet, a book that is, in some ways, as ambitious as anything this author has thus far attempted.
Unfortunately, over the long haul, the attempt fails. Noble Norfleet is a beautiful book. The writing here is superb, the characters finely drawn. The first two-thirds of the book are nearly perfect. Price spins a beautiful web of tension and dangles many possibilities. It's as the book winds down that we realize that some of what he's dangled will never be completely realized. For example, the visions that Noble sees not long after his siblings are killed lead, ultimately, nowhere and that oversight -- if oversight it is -- leaves the reader slightly hollow. Why have "waving hands in dogwood trees, close-up stars in a normal backyard; other men's wives turn to angels in my lap," if the visions these images represent ultimately don't lead anywhere?
Another possible lapse involves a lawman called Dell Stillman who finds Noble's mother's car abandoned with a note on the seat deeding the car to her only living son. When Noble meets Dell, the man is jovial and vaguely familiar: he reminds Noble of the father that left him years before. However in one point of their encounter, Dell changes before Noble's eyes:
That moment he turned into somebody new -- and maybe too near me. The deep voice said "You killed those children, didn't you? Your mother ran from you. She's hiding somewhere, scared to death you'll find her. But you know where she is. That much is true."
This paragraph contains a couple of comments that are -- to me -- inexplicable and set up what becomes my largest dissatisfaction with Noble Norfleet. What does he mean by "maybe too near me"? The comment is never explained. And when Noble reports Dell as having said, "But you know where she is. That much is true" there had been no substantial discussion of Edith's whereabouts at that point and no one, including Noble, knew where she was, so why this? Why now? Most mysterious of all, several pages later Noble tells us that, "In time it would turn out I was maybe right about Dell Stillman's spirit." But, except in fairly offhand ways, he never writes about Dell again, and the lawman never makes a second appearance in the book.
Yet Noble Norfleet haunts me. I've gone back and reread substantial portions of it looking for whatever it is I might have missed. This, to me, is telling. Reynolds is an accomplished and celebrated writer of fiction and poetry. His book-length publication began in 1962 with A Long and Happy Life which won the William Faulkner Award for a notable first novel. Significantly, that book has never been out of print. As a Rhodes Scholar, he read English Literature at Oxford University. He has been teaching English literature at Duke University for five decades. His books have been published in 16 languages and he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. All of this incredibly impressive stuff combined with the fact that I found a good portion of Noble Norfleet genuinely compelling has had me reexamining that which I know against that which I surmise. Here's what I've come up with.
If, as is apparent when you've finished reading the book, Noble didn't kill his siblings, then Noble Norfleet is flawed and incomplete: early promise leading to disappointment for the reader. If, as I suspect, Noble did kill his brother and sister then spent the balance of his life lying to himself about it, it becomes a quite different book with subtleties so subtle that even most readers -- this one included -- won't be able to completely grasp all of it. And, perhaps, that's the point. The life viewed from within is never what one would make of it if viewed from without. But if a book is so emotionally sophisticated that readers don't get it, have you done your job as an author?
None of this is reason to give Noble Norfleet a miss. Be prepared, however, to be perplexed and, when you're done, let me know who you think did it. I'm still not sure what I think. | June 2002
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.