Peter Pouncey
Photo: Frank Ward

Rules for Old Men Waiting
By Peter R. Pouncey, President and Edwin F. and Jessie Burnell Fobes Professor in Greek (Classics), Emeritus. New York: Random House, 2005. 208 pp. $21.95 hardcover.

On hearing that former Amherst President Peter Pouncey has published a novel, more than one acquaintance of mine wondered if it was “about Amherst,” and thus could be read to get one man’s lowdown on real people and places. Rules for Old Men Waiting is decidedly not about Amherst, nor is it in any simple sense autobiographical or confessional. Its epigraph from the Book of Joel announces that “Your young men shall see visions, / Your old men shall dream dreams,” and the novel opens as follows:

The house and the old man were well matched, both large framed and failing fast. The house had a better excuse, MacIver thought; he was 80, but the house was older than the Republic,had been a century old when Thoreau walked the Cape, though he couldn’t have seen it tucked away in the non-descript maze of scrub oak. It had been the willful seclusion of the place that had appealed to them when they first saw it—that and the equally hidden pool, about two minutes away through their woods, which must have decided the builder to choose the site.

As is invariably the case with Pouncey’s style, a lot is going on here. The old man, Robert MacIver, is introduced to us in sentences that lightly signal the sardonic wit with which he views himself and his rapidly diminishing world. That world is “failing fast,” but MacIver’s inner world is preparing to flower in the dreaming of dreams that will constitute the book’s real action. Both man and house are deftly placed by the reference to Thoreau, and to the scrub oak and hidden pool, the willful seclusion of which appealed to “them”—to MacIver and his wife of 35 years, Margaret, recently dead.

But what counts most in this sequence from the novel’s opening paragraph is the establishing of a poet’s voice. In a useful formulation Lionel Trilling once called this voice supremely important: “It either gives us confidence in what is being said or it tells us that we do not need to listen; and it carries both the modulation and the living form of what is being said.” The voice that animates every page of Rules for Old Men Waiting inspires confidence by convincing us we need to listen, and it does this not through the explicit insistence of a detached narrator, but through the urgencies of its chief character’s imagination. After his wife’s death, MacIver, through grief and lassitude, proceeds, along with his house, to fall into ruin:

The reason he could do none of the necessary things to take care of himself, on the few occasions when he thought of them, was that he was preoccupied elsewhere. Great gusts of emotion, of weeping but also of rage and strange exultation, and powerful images, full of color and detail, seemed to have taken hold of him.

In a willed resistance to this movement toward death, MacIver, through an effort of imagination, determines to take hold of life rather than be taken hold of by it; to respond to the Furies by the light of an overriding concern to work—to “tell a story to its end.” The impulse is the one Robert Frost salutes in his poem “West-Running Brook” as “some strange resistance in itself….Not just a swerving, but a throwing back, / As if regret were in it and were sacred.”

So MacIver lays down his rules for old men waiting, from keeping clean, to making up the bed, to eating regularly, to listening to music, to, last and most important, working every morning. This work—you might call it the work of Pouncey’s novel—consists mainly of telling to its end a story of life and death in a British unit occupying a Flanders trench in World War I. The story is told artfully, by degrees, and its morning telling alternates with other tellings, other stories, from MacIver’s own past: stories about his father, a flier killed in that same war; about himself as a boy and as a naval commander in World War II; of his meeting and marrying Margaret, a painter; and, most affectingly and painfully of all, the too-brief life of their son David, a casualty of yet a later war. The life MacIver has lived has everything to do with the characters he imagines in the story he is writing: “His memories of his son and what had happened to him came to serve as categories of grief, rage, yearning through which everything else would pass…. The young men would enter their last battle in the grim light of what he had learned from his early fallen child.”

Driven as it is by this overriding and somber motive, the novel is also full of incidental but elemental pleasures. The ones registering most strongly for me involve MacIver’s listening to music and his consumption of food. As it becomes increasingly difficult for him to digest and swallow food he devises a dish called Sweet Gruel, made by mashing up Pepperidge Farm lemon cookies in a bowl of lukewarm water, to which may be added three heaped spoons of honey and as much single malt whiskey as he pleases. When the cookies give out (there will be no further trips to the market) he tries warm maple syrup with the scotch. The musical recipes include slow movements of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132, or Beethoven’s Archduke Trio as played by Ax-Kim-Ma, or Schubert’s Cello Quintet—each piece exquisitely and sensuously evoked through the ears of an old man listening. As MacIver ponders the meanings implicit in his story or parable, large thoughts about the literary and historical past emerge: “Rage was the necessary word, perhaps the first word onto the page in Western literature with Achilles’ menis in the Iliad.” We remember that the author of Rules for Old Men Waiting wrote a book about Thucydides, historian of the Peloponnesian War.

On the jacket of this book, Norman Mailer, who also knows something about war and wrote about it, says that the author writes in such a way as “to bring envy into the heart of many a good novelist.” True enough, for although this is a “first novel,” it bears the marks of long contemplation, of technical and moral wisdom put in the service of what Henry James called “felt life.” “The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel…is that it be interesting,” James declared in his essay “The Art of Fiction.” Peter Pouncey’s novel fulfills that obligation from its opening to its concluding words.

—William H. Pritchard ’53
The reviewer is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English